Finland leaders in Hilo inspire Hawaiʻi with its successful efforts to end homelessness
On Tuesday, leaders from Finland were in Hilo to explain how the northern European nation of 5.5 million is eliminating homelessness, a problem that Hawaiʻi County and the Aloha State have been trying to tackle for years.
Juha Kaakinen, Rapporteur for the Ministry of Environment of Finland, told the audience at the ʻImiloa Astronomy Center: “It’s not rocket science.”
He said it’s political will. Finland has a strategy called “housing first” that makes affordable housing a priority with the philosophy that housing is a basic human and social right. Other issues like mental health and substance abuse are treated second.
And, Finland has made a long-term commitment to follow the “housing first” strategy with the right to housing part of its Constitution. The commitment has resulted in the country’s homeless population dropping to 3,900, half of what it was in 2009.
“You can’t have housing first without having housing first,” Kaakinen said.
Finland’s dramatic drop in homeless is even more remarkable considering it is the only European country where homeless numbers are not rising, according to The Economist. Finland no longer has homeless encampments. The country now is working to get rid of temporary shelters and hostels that are not permanent housing solutions. Finland’s goal is to have the homeless crisis completely resolved by 2027.
“There’s amazing power when people have a common vision,” he said.
Finland’s visit to Hawai‘i is part of November’s Homeless Awareness Month, during which education is being provided to state and local leaders, and nonprofits, about how to tackle homelessness on a united front.
A delegation of 24 Hawaiʻi leaders, including two from Hawaiʻi County, visited Finland in June for its International Social Housing Festival, a conference that discussed the importance of housing through public, cooperative, social and community-led housing sectors.
Brandee Menino, executive director of Hope Services who was in the Hawaiʻi delegation, told the audience: “How do I explain what happens in another country? So, I decided to bring them to Hilo.”
Jarmo Linden, director of Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland, told the audience that subsidized housing has existed in his country since 1949.
In 2008, the Finnish government and its parties decided to continue national programs to end homelessness.
One of the priorities among the current subsidy principles includes those who are in the greatest need of housing with the smallest income should have priority with no income cap. A rental contract is good for 40 years.
“If you are poor, you always get the housing benefit,” Linden said.
Leiala Hoopii, outreach housing navigator with Hope Services Hawai‘i, said she thought the presentation was interesting and was amazed at how many people turned out for the presentation.
But she thinks Hawaiʻi has a long way to go to reach Finland’s accomplishments.
“I think we need more support from the legislature — people who can actually do something about it,” Hoopii said.
Hoopii said things are extremely expensive and single parents aren’t able to afford a rental unit in the state.
“If our government isn’t on the same mindset we can’t end homelessness,” Hoopii said.
Mayor Mitch Roth has said that creating affordable housing is a priority for his administration.
The Hawai‘i County Council has addressed this by approving the housing development of Kumu Hou, which will provide a select number of affordable housing units.
Earlier this year, the council passed a measure that sets aside a portion of property taxes levied on second luxury homes on the island to be used to address homelessness and housing needs. But the council and the county Office of Housing and Community Development are divided on how to best use the funding.
“I think this community sees the issue but isn’t on the same page on how to address it,” county Housing Administrator Susan Kunz said at the luncheon.
The state conducted its 2022 Point-In-Time Count on Jan. 23 to determine how many homeless are on the streets and in shelters. Both Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i counties had a 5% increase in total homelessness, according to state data collected by Bridging the Gap Hawai’i.
The overall increase in 2022 was fueled by a 7% increase in unsheltered homelessness to 1,394 persons compared to 1,304 in 2020 statewide. Unsheltered homelessness rose on all three rural counties, with the Big Island up 6%.
Menino said she felt everyone was excited and empowered to tackle the homeless crisis: “If we can continue to gather to talk story we can get on the same page.”
Menino said affordable housing is everyone’s problem and she agrees with Finlandʻs successful philosophy of housing first.
“It’s really just trying to get the same vision that housing is a human right and everyone deserves housing,” Menino said.