VHC Keynote Plenary Address: Ending Homelessness in Ireland, Denmark and Finland?

Ending Homelessness in Ireland, Denmark and Finland?

by Eoin O’Sullivan, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Professor Eoin O’Sullivan at the 2017 Victorian Homelessness Conference

In most European states, as well as in Australia, homelessness is on the increase. It is also at stubbornly high levels in North America. This is despite virtually all European and North American states having devised strategies in recent years that promise to end long-term homelessness and the need to sleep rough. Somewhat paradoxically, as the numbers of homeless people are rising in many countries, provinces, and regions, or are at best remaining stable, there is greater optimism than ever before that homelessness can be ended. In a review of over 60 plans and strategies in North America, Europe and Australia that aim to end homelessness, it was noted that while there was little consistency in how ending homelessness was operationalised, the majority had a broadly ‘functional zero’ definition. That is a definition that does not seek to completely eliminate homelessness, an ‘absolute zero approach’, but rather aims to ensure ‘there are enough services, housing and shelter beds for those who need it. In this approach, emergency shelters are meant to be temporary and the goal is permanent housing’.1


A key reason for the optimism that homelessness can be ended is that our knowledge of what works in preventing and ending homelessness had improved significantly over the past decade. Until relatively recently, managing homelessness via the provision of various shelter-type services was the dominant national and local policy response in Europe and North America. Those provided for with shelter services were then prepared for housing through a series self-improving measures such as ensuring sobriety and abstinence from drugs. This model, often referred to as the Housing Ready approach, is gradually being replaced by model where homeless people are providing with Housing First in the form of Permanent Supportive Housing, and any addiction, mental health or other disability are resolved via the provision of floating support services.


Methodologically robust evidence has demonstrated the success of these rapid-rehousing programs when people are threatened with homelessness, and of Housing First programs that consistently show high rates of housing retention for formerly long-term dual diagnosed homeless people.(2) Our knowledge of the costs of maintaining people in homelessness, via the provision of congregate emergency and temporary accommodation demonstrate that is both fiscally responsible and ethically justifiable to provide evidence-based housing responses to homelessness, with support where necessary, based on the financial costs to the Exchequer, and damage to the capabilities and productivity of individuals, if their homelessness is not ended.(3)



The Experience in Ireland, Finland and Denmark

In 2008, the Finnish, Danish and Irish Governments set in train strategic plans to reduce and eliminate long-term homelessness by 2016. In the case of Finland, the 2008 strategy had the goal of halving long-term homelessness by 2011, while a second strategy in 2012 aimed to eliminate long-term homelessness by 2015. A further third strategy, covering from 2016-19 has a focus on prevention, but also on building new dwellings. The target is to build or allocate 3,500 dwellings over the period for people that are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. (4) All three strategies adopted key elements of the Housing First approach, albeit with a distinctive Finnish flavour. (5) Following the first national homelessness count that took place in 2007, Denmark adopted its national homelessness strategy in 2008, with a programme period from 2009 to 2013, succeeded by a follow-up programme from 2014 to 2016. A key element of the program was developing and testing evidence based floating support methods (Assertive Community Treatment, Intensive Case Management and Critical Time Intervention) in municipal social services, with funding provided from the central government.


In Ireland, an early adopter of homeless strategies commencing in 2000, a comprehensive strategy was published in 2008, entitled The Way Home, that aimed to ensure that by 2010 ‘long-term homelessness and the need for people to sleep rough will be eliminated throughout Ireland.’ This strategy implicitly adopted a housing-led approach to ending homelessness, and a review and restatement of the strategy in 2013 explicitly adopted a housing led approach.(6) Thus, the three countries adopted ambitious targets to end homelessness and revisited and refined their strategies every couple of years.



As is well documented, comparative work on extent of homelessness is beset with definitional issues.(7)(8) To assess the outcomes of the three strategies, data on those living rough, in emergency accommodation and accommodation for the homeless are presented for the three countries. These are the first three categories in ETHOS, which is the European Typology of Homelessness and Housing Exclusion which was developed as a means of allowing meaningful comparative analysis on the extent of homelessness across different jurisdictions.


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  1. Turner A, Pakeman K and Albanese T 2015, Discerning ‘Functional Zero’: Considerations for Defining and Measuring an End to Homelessness in Canada, Toronto: The Homeless Hub, p.5.
  2. Cherner R A, Aubry T, Sylvestre J, Boyd R and D Pettey 2017, Housing First for Adults with Problematic Substance Use, Journal of Dual Diagnosis, vol13, no.3, pp.219-229.
  3. Parsell C, Petersen M and Culhane D 2017, Cost Offsets of Supportive Housing: Evidence for Social Work, British Journal of Social Work, vol.47, no.5, pp.1534-1553.
  4. Pleace N 2017, The Action Plan for Preventing Homelessness in Finland 2016-2019: The Culmination of an Integrated Strategy to End Homelessness?, European Journal of Homelessness, vol.11, no.2.
  5. Y-Foundation 2017, A Home of Your Own: Housing First and Ending Homelessness in Finland, Keuruu: Otava.
  6. O’Sullivan E 2016, Ending Homelessness in Ireland: Ambition, Austerity, Adjustment?, European Journal of Homelessness, vol.10, no.2, pp.11-39.
  7. Busch-Geertsema V, Benjaminsen L, Filipovič Hrast M and Pleace N 2014, Extent and Profile of Homelessness in European Member States, European Observatory on Homelessness, Brussels.
  8. Benjaminsen L and Knutagård M 2016, Homelessness Research and Policy Development: Examples from the Nordic Countries, European Journal of Homelessness, vol.10, no.3, pp.45-66.