Looking to the Future – Juha Kaakinen on the importance of perspective when developing Housing First

“After over 9 years as a CEO of Y-Foundation I have already handed all responsibilities over to my successor Teija Ojankoski and I’m in the happy process of transition to retirement as a senior advisor. It means that I can speak freely without any liabilities.

I have a theory that when you’re young you have radical ideas because you don’t know and when you get old enough you get radical ideas because you know. My idea gets some support from a Swedish researcher Lars Tornstam who has developed the concept of gerotranscendence, which means a radical re-evaluation of your values, yourself, and your relation to the world. It can also mean that you have very radical, even anarchistic, ideas. So, beware!

Looking to the future, it’s all about perspective; perspective in time. For me the time perspective is 40 years back – to the first time I worked with homeless people – and you never know how many years into the future. But I’ll start with some reflections on a term that has become very common: trauma.

There’s a fascinating book called The Empire of Trauma by Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, outlining the history of trauma from the 19th century. In the contemporary moral economy, trauma and trauma-informed care play an important role. As we have also seen in homelessness work training on trauma, informed care has been well sought after and popular as it seems to provide useful tools for client work. Although sometimes you get the impression that there is a lot of trauma around, as if the concept was used in a loose way, there is a risk that the concept becomes inflated and loses its power of explanation.  There seems to be a whole industry around trauma. But can almost everything be explained by traumatizing experiences?

Then, suddenly something unexpected like a war happens and we can see that there really are very different kinds of trauma. Why am I telling you all this? Because I don’t want us to think of all homeless people as traumatized or that you need to be traumatized to be eligible for Housing First. And the next thing is already coming. Quite recently, prolonged grief and prolonged grief disorder were added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in USA. It goes without saying that there is already a special treatment (in 16 sessions) for this disorder. It is difficult to say which one was first, diagnosis or treatment; it could be both ways.

Over the years, most of the people I have met who work with homelessness want to do their best and maintain high professional integrity. Therefore, we are hungry for concepts, definitions, evidence-based practices, guidelines, fidelity, evaluation templates – we are very much looking for something from the outside. We long for certificates and diplomas. But is it after all a question of self-esteem and self-respect based on the one thing we can only find in our hearts: the moral compass, compassion based on the believe of undivided human value.

Compassion and common sense are invaluable assets; you can build your professionalism on them but you can’t build your professionalism without them.

Working with homelessness is difficult and not always rewarding. We have to work with a lot of uncertainty, on estimates and probabilities. There are no absolute truths, and that’s also the case for Housing First. Housing First – at least in the beginning – was more an educated guess of what could, probably would, and ultimately seems to work.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking images, people, closer to us than we could imagine, people from Ukraine escaping the atrocities of war, abandoning their homes and everything. There’s an unimaginable amount of grief you can see on people’s faces.

It’s all about perspective and scope.

There are suddenly millions of people needing shelter and accommodation. Although there has already been an unforeseen level of civil activity from private citizens sharing their own homes, it is still mainly on the shoulders of public authorities, together with NGOs, to find housing solutions. At the same time, we in the homelessness sector are running our projects on Housing First with a few tens of apartments, in some cases with a few hundred, and in some unique cases with a few thousand apartments.

There is something strange in this; it looks like we are living in a parallel reality. We fortunately now have our Homelessness Platform, but at the same time there are other platforms in stations that are much more crowded. I don’t think in the long run it is sustainable and the line separating realities of traditional or native homelessness from homelessness of refugees – whether humanitarian, climate, or something else – is artificial.

It looks like every few years a new wave, like a tsunami, hits the shoreline of Europe. People are escaping atrocities of war, climate hazards or simply unsustainable living conditions without hope for a better future. We have had these waves and we can be certain that there are new waves coming. Do we really think that we could simply watch and wait until the tide recedes and then continue to take care of our “sandbox” and run business as usual?

We sometimes speak of the homelessness sector as something self-evident, something that has pretty much always existed, but that’s not true. The homelessness sector is born out of failures; failures of society – or system if you want to use that word – failures to provide housing and support for those who need it, lack of compassion and taking inequality as a natural law. So many things we know are morally wrong and against human dignity. The homelessness sector can, and should, be the bad consciousness of our societies.

But the homelessness sector cannot end homelessness on its own, no matter how much we develop our own work.

In this conference, we have spoken a lot about system change, but it has been a discussion of system change within the homelessness sector. But is it actually so that we should speak about a much wider issue, much wider systemic change. The homelessness sector can be a new beginning or a wider civil activity movement to abolish inequality in all its forms.

There are two things that need to be discussed: Who would be our friends and allies and where does the money needed come from. I’ll start with the money. Yesterday we heard again that there’s a lot of money, actually more than ever available. That gave me a memory flashback to the year 1990, when I was elected as a CEO in a research and development company owned by municipalities and the Chair of the Board called to congratulate me and said, “There’s money, but we need new ideas”. I thought “what a dream job I have” but it didn’t take long for me to realize that the money was not in the organization’s bank account and what followed was a 20 year-long, constant battle to find money for the salaries of my co-workers.

I have a similar frustration now. In the European administrative hierarchy, money is up here and needs down there. How on earth is this money going to reach the people, homeless people, who need it. Should we rob the European Central Bank or what?

A couple of weeks ago we had an event in Y-Foundation where we published a book about Y-Foundation. I was asked about the future and I said that we – or you – have to do a little bit more, a little bit better, and a little bit faster. Since then, the world has changed and I think we should do much more, much better, and much faster.

So, what does it mean in practice? If you had as a goal to acquire 100 apartments for Housing First, add one more zero, make it 1,000. If you had a timeline for 8 years, make it 4 years and don’t say it is impossible. It is difficult and should be, but it is possible.

For all this we need strong allies and friends outside the sector. If you look at the numbers, it is even a little tempting to think about ending homelessness more as a part of solving the so-called refugee crisis.

But who could be our allies?

I’m thinking of some international organizations and their inertia, which seems to be their natural quality. It took over ten years after the European Consensus Conference on Homelessness and intensive work from Freek and his colleagues in FEANTSA before the EU Commission finally came to the conclusion that they could do something.  Although there now is a small hint of optimism with the Homelessness Platform, I would not count on it alone. We need closer allies. It is great that we have in the Housing First Hub even some government bodies like here in Spain, or Belgium and France, but we need more.

So, who could be our natural allies? Of course, and before anything else, we need housing. The late Leonard Cohen would probably sing: ‘first we take social housing, then…’ if only there were social housing in many countries.

There are various strategies for this because the situations are so different in different countries. You can build alliances, or if that’s not possible you have to do it yourself.

Then we have health professionals. I think that during the pandemic there has been a totally new consciousness of homelessness as a health issue.

And then we have even more specific professionals, like architects, who could have an important role in creating new housing solutions that help to end homelessness.

I think that homelessness work – and the Hub with it – is now at a crossroads. During the few years the Hub has existed, it has established its role and important and meaningful work has been done. But is it enough? It is appropriate that the name of this conference speaks about unlocking as there’s an obvious risk that the Hub locks itself in the golden cage of fidelity and the Hub turns out to be a congregation of true believers. Yes, we can continue to do meaningful things because there’s a huge demand for training, communities of practice, research, and we can focus on even more specific groups, like Housing First for youth etc.  But there’s a risk of Housing First ending up becoming one high quality service model among others, and the risk that we lose connection to the main goal: ending homelessness. It is about focusing more inward or outward.

I think it is the responsibility of us and the Hub to develop Housing First even further, so that it helps to end homelessness in the best possible way. We don’t have to lose anything of the basic philosophy and principles of Housing First, but there are things that we seriously have to reconsider; we have to update Housing First to modern times. I have one specific thing in mind and it is the role of scattered housing. Yes, it should be permanent housing, your own apartment with your own rental contract, but the idea that a client could freely choose from different affordable apartments, from different parts of the city, is even for me, who calls himself a pragmatist utopian, absurdly idealistic. Also, I can’t accept the idea that a former homeless person is the greatest possible risk for another former homeless person.  We have seen in some supported housing units the importance of community, a community of people with similar experiences.

Instead of one fixed housing model we should look for all possible housing solutions and think how we can adapt them for Housing First use, it could be the reuse of office space or hotels etc.

I don’t think that we have too much time to show the revolutionary impact that Housing First can have in reducing, and finally ending, homelessness.

There is at least one thing where we are on the same line with our clients, with homeless people. We may be professionals of homelessness or housing, but none of us is a professional of life. Daniel Innerarity, in his book: Ethics of Hospitality,says it nicely:

“We are born and we die too soon. We are born although we do not know how to live and we die when we can no longer live, even though we know how to. The most important things cannot be taught or learned before doing them. We all have to have direct experience in life through unique, individual paths that are rough and have no conclusion. An opaque background seems to surround any attempt at becoming “professionals” of life precisely because life, since it cannot be repeated, does not let itself be subject to any experimentation”

Yes, it’s a question about perspective. We can narrow it down to some more specific targets. That way we get a sharper and clearer picture but at the same time we limit our options, we lose something. When we broaden our perspective, the picture may be a little hazy and blurred at the sides but still we can see many more opportunities in the horizon.

Yes, the importance of perspective:

A microscope is not the right tool if you want to see the stars.”

Juha Kaakinen


Juha Kaakinen is the former CEO of Y-Säätiö/Y-Foundation and now Senior Advisor to the Housing First Europe Hub.

This speech was one of the keynotes at the Housing First Europe Hub’s inaugural international conference, which took place from 28-29th March 2022 in Madrid.

For more information about the conference – including related papers and reports – please visit our conference page here.

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