16 Sep 2017

Stop using motels, homeless expert says

10:53 am on 16 September 2017

An international expert on homelessness is telling New Zealand to stop buying motels as emergency accommodation and instead do more to emulate Finland.

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Photo: 123rf

According to European Union officials, Finland is the only country in the EU not in the midst of a crisis of homelessness and people excluded from housing.

"They built houses for homeless people ... 6000 units of housing," Professor Eoin O'Sullivan, editor of the European Journal of Homelessness said at a Melbourne conference.

"There are virtually no rough sleepers and the numbers in emergency accommodation over a long period of time have declined very considerably."

Finland introduced its Housing First policy in 2008. Other countries such as Denmark have followed to some degree.

New Zealand adopted the approach in earnest only this year.

In Finland, the housing is offered unconditionally to homeless people, who take on the tenancy and pay rent as a proportion of income, but, as in New Zealand, have a lot of support services they can access.

More than 80 percent of the homeless who take on a permanent tenancy stay housed in Finland; the figures for New Zealand, where it is early days, are running at above 90 percent.

Government funding is going into almost 1000 permanent housing places in five cities for the homeless, following a two-year pilot in Hamilton by a non-government organisation.

"I haven't had the ability to go back and look at whether it was considered earlier or what happened," National Party social housing spokesperson Amy Adams said.

"It started two years ago. That means that the work looking at it and doing the international literature review would've started some time before that."

The 2017 Budget put $17 million into Housing First. But more than 20 times that much has been spent on emergency housing in the last three years, including on buying six entire motels.

Ireland could not follow Finland due to the conditions around it being bailed out during the Global Financial Crisis, and consequently Dublin's emergency housing places had jumped from 600 to 2000 since 2008, while Helsinki's had fallen from 600 to 52, Professor O'Sullivan, said.

Emergency and transitional housing was not only "brutally expensive" but the experience was it did not work to move people into permanent housing.

"If you provide supported housing you need very little emergency accommodation because when people enter emergency accommodation we get them out again as quickly as possible.

"Housing people first is both successful and cost neutral but in some cases cost saving."

A lot of one-bedroom and studio units suitable for single homeless men and women were now being built, Amy Adams said.

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