Vehi Hinkka says he likes to take a shower. How exactly? Warm, cold, long, short? Hinkka, 54, finely combed gray hair, prominent nose, rough, firm skin, thinks for a while. He strokes his chin restlessly with his outstretched right index finger and thumb, seems to really weigh up. His gaze wanders over the barren white walls. "Yes, well," he says, "I don't quite understand the question. I really like to shower, I think I like everything."

Hinkka is obviously no longer used to someone being so curious about his life. And also not to be able to decide for himself how and how long he showers.

For the last five years, Hinkka has been living in emergency shelters and on the streets, when things were going well, acquaintances let him sleep in their apartments at night. He has been a constant drinker for 23 years, says Hinkka himself. It's been about the same amount since his last job. And yet here he is, in a somewhat bare one-room apartment with an armchair, bed and fitted kitchen. Vehi Hinkka has had his own apartment for ten months and nine days. The date, he says, he knows by heart: February 10, 2023. He can now invite friends and host himself. Can cook the food and leave it on the stove. Take a warm shower or a cold shower. In the summer, he showered ten times a day, really, it's not an exaggeration. Simply because he felt like it.

Vehi Hinkka is no longer homeless. He is still not healthy, the addiction has marked his body, it continues to shape his life. And yet he was trusted to pay his monthly rent, which he does. He smiles shyly when he talks about it.

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Vehi Hinkka's apartment: more important things than decorated walls

Photo: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

Thousands of Finns have felt the same way in recent years. While the number of homeless people across Europe has been rising massively for years, Finland is the only country that has almost solved the problem. Only about 3600 people are still homeless, and by 2027 at least long-term homelessness should have disappeared completely. In the capital Helsinki, as early as 2025. How could this be achieved? And how does it change a society when almost no one has to live on the streets anymore?

Harri Ollinen, the social worker who runs the settlement on the northeastern outskirts of Helsinki, where Vehi Hinkka also lives, can tell you about it. There are 70 small apartments, former student apartments in which former homeless people have now found a home. There is a common room and a sauna, but also clear rules: no violence, no drugs in common areas, no alcohol either.

This morning, four colleagues sit next to him in the group room, and, in a changing line-up, about the same number of former homeless people. "Housing first" is the name of the concept that entrusts people with an apartment who would not even get a place to sleep in an emergency shelter elsewhere. Abstinence is a prerequisite for many aid programmes – and the reason why they often fail is believed in Finland. Here, it is only required in public spaces, and a team of about 20 employees takes care of the residents, who are often addicted, around the clock. They are not only social workers, but also nurses, occupational therapists, psychologists and doctors.

"By giving people a home, we create structures," says Ollinen. "If that works, we can talk about everything else."

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Common room of the settlement

Photo: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

Around him sit men, some of whom find it visibly difficult to sit still, the youngest is 27 and looks at least 15 years older. He is still on the waiting list, can only walk with a crutch, but still comes here four times a week and likes to cook. He should be called Santeri, he says, and talks about his plight in a staccato voice. He drank for the first time at the age of eleven, took hard drugs at 13 and sold them at 16. At the age of 19 he had his first apartment of his own, and at <> he lost his last. For a while, he lived in a tent in the forest. And used everything for a long time: cocaine, heroin, meth.

"I can't remember what happened in some years of my life," he says. Today, he drinks and smokes pot above all, his only longing is to have his own apartment. "And I'm sure you'll get it," says Harri Ollinen.

Actually, it is supposed to be about them, but the residents are very interested in the situation in Germany. You hear a lot about the need, says one of them worriedly. Is it true that hundreds of people camped out in the open in Hamburg?

When they finally hear that the city has been trying to evict homeless people at the main station with classical music for years, things get restless. Social worker Ollinen also looks incredulous and shakes his head. They can hardly imagine such an undignified situation here.

The residents of the settlement have even recently had an empathy counsellor. It is the first of its kind in the world, says Enni-Kukka Tuomala in an interview. "If you live on the streets, you can't afford feelings," she says. "If you're homeless, you don't even tell friends where you sleep," says one of the men.

However, the regular empathy training is also aimed at the neighbourhood – because not everyone is enthusiastic about having 70 former homeless people as neighbours. They meet for discussion groups and draw maps of the neighbourhood on which the neighbours are asked to write down their feelings. What does it say then? "Forest: calming. Public housing? Very individual feelings," says the empathy expert, smiling softly. Hinkka and the others look a bit depressed. Today, they are supposed to write each other's positive experiences on pieces of paper on their backs.

For decades, Finland has been investing in the construction, maintenance and purchase of thousands of social housing units. More than 8000,15 apartments have been created in recent years just for the homeless, and ending homelessness has been the common goal of all governments, both left and right, for over 2019 years. In the capital alone, the number of homeless people was reduced by more than 2022 percent from 40 to <>.

The first calls for more action against homelessness were made as early as the 20s. At that time, an estimated 000,<> Finns lived without a home during a severe economic crisis, and many of the "forest men" slept in garbage cans in winter to avoid freezing to death.

In 2007, it was a conservative building minister under whose leadership the concept of "housing first" was launched – i.e. the idea of providing housing for all homeless people. They were not street workers, but leaders of a bourgeois government and experts. That gave the whole thing a completely different credibility," explains Juha Kahila. The trained social worker works for Y-Säätiö, the foundation set up by the five largest municipalities that owns most of the apartments in the program.

In the meantime, Kahila is doing a job that has never been done before: he meets people from all over the world to clarify the Finnish "housing first" approach. The German Minister of Construction, Klara Geywitz, has just been here to bask in the glow of Finnish social policy. Kahila will soon be flying to Canada and the USA.

Kahila wears an Apple Watch and an expensive hoodie, and a Steve Jobs figure wobbles on his desk. At times, he speaks more like a manager. Instead of just talking about basic rights and need, he now talks about clean city centers and less overburdened emergency doctors. "I deliberately don't just emphasize the moral side," he says. "It's about the concept being convincing and getting enough support, not about my conscience. Everyone thinks it's nicer when no one lives on the streets in a city."

The program is also economically worthwhile, says Kahila. Since the start of the program, "Housing first" has provided housing for 60 percent of homeless people in Finland. According to its own calculations, the state has saved almost 2012 million euros annually since 32, especially in the health sector. "Hardly any other country has as good statistics as we do," says Kahila.

Foreign visitors often point out that Finland is a small country with comparatively few migrants. But Kahila thinks these are excuses, and what others often lack is the unconditional political will: "Nothing happens without a change of system in social policy. We're not doing just any project here, we're taking a fundamentally different approach."

Fewer overburdened emergency doctors, nicer city centres

There is also enough potential to improve the situation in other countries. It is reminiscent of unused office buildings and empty hotels. He points to Denmark, which is now taking a similar approach and recently became the second EU country to reduce the number of homeless people for the first time.

While in many other European countries more and more people have to live on the streets, in Finland they are now actively sought. Elisabet Erkkilä leads a team at Helsinki City Council to find and support the city's remaining homeless. Like almost every interviewee in this story, she is a former social worker.

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City employee Elisabet Erkkilä: "I felt like Santa Claus at the beginning"

Photo: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

Erkkilä has five social workers and two nurses in her project team. Her job is to look for people who still fall through the cracks every day and help them get a place on the waiting list for an apartment. In addition to all existing support services, emergency shelters, street workers, assisted living.

Erkkilä used to work on the streets as a social worker. "We felt like Santa Claus in the beginning," she says, "it's not often in our job that a problem disappears."

In the meantime, the team's work is very fragmented, also due to its own success. "At the same time, it has to be said that there is still covert homelessness. In Helsinki, few people live permanently on the streets, many hide with friends or change accommodation frequently. Some hide the fact that they don't have a place to live for years."

For years, setbacks were met with even more ambition, and despite the high initial costs, the state and municipalities organized thousands of additional apartments. Recently, however, politicians have distanced themselves from the former consensus: the new right-wing government is pursuing a tough austerity program; Subsidies for affordable housing and housing advice have already been cut. Former Prime Minister Sanna Marin's stated goal of completely eliminating homelessness by 2027 has already been cashed in. The new plans only talk about the end of "long-term homelessness".

"It won't work that way," says Juha Kahila of the foundation behind the "Housing first" program, "the abolition of homelessness by 2027 is history."

Erkkilä, a social worker, wonders how long her clients will have to wait in the future before she is allowed to help them. She fears that her Santa Claus days will soon be over – and so close to the finish line.

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