Which country handles homelessness the best?

Sep 21, 2022
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The two countries that handle homelessness the best are Finland and Japan. Therefore, we will look at how these two countries have approached homelessness to determine exactly which country handles homelessness best.

Why Finland and Japan?

Firstly, let's talk about the extent of the situation within each country. In our previous article on which country has the lowest rate of homelessness, Japan was determined as the country with the smallest percentage of people experiencing homelessness in the world, with a rate of 0.003%, which is approximately 1 in every 34,000 people.

Finland was determined to have the 10th lowest rate of homelessness in Europe, with a rate of homelessness at 0.08% on a given night, which is 1 in every 3,925 people. If this is the case, why is Finland placed next to Japan? This is because of how Finland has handled homelessness over the past 30 years.

Finland's Fight Against Homelessness

Statistics on homelessness in Finland show that in 1989 there were roughly 16,000 people experiencing homelessness. Since then, that number has steadily declined to approximately 4,000 people in 2020. This is effectively a 75% decrease in homelessness over 30 years. Finland is also the only EU country that has experienced any decline in the number of homeless reported in the last 10 years.

Why are Finland's statistics impressive?

Firstly, Finland's definition of homelessness is extensive. It includes people who are temporarily staying with friends or family, which is not common among other nations' homelessness statistics.

This brings Finland's low numbers into context but also gives a greater degree of reliability to the interventions they have created – by ensuring the problem is correctly understood. As a result, they would be able to address it most effectively.

Secondly, this success results from innovative solutions and a strategy that has been provided with the necessary resources and driven by the Housing First approach.

A History of Housing First

The housing first principle, policy or approach, is an ideology originally coined by a Canadian Psychologist named Sam Tsemberis, who proposed that the best way to eradicate homelessness was to give people homes. The notion was approached with scepticism at first and it was argued that more complex contributory factors such as mental health or substance abuse need to be solved first.

Finland, however, sees housing as a fundamental human right that needs to be extended to every homeless person. In 2008, the Finnish government committed to the Housing First policy as part of a drive to end homelessness.

Housing First Explained

Put simply, the Housing First model is a means to give a person experiencing homelessness a home, a rental or a flat with a contract without any conditions. These people are not required to get a job first, get sober, or make any lifestyle changes - housing is provided first.

The notion goes that once people have permanent housing; they will be able to seek the help they require to improve their lives.

This approach has successfully reduced the number of people experiencing homelessness. Government-partnered nonprofit organisations, such as The Y-Foundation, are integral in making this success. The Y-Foundation CEO, Juha Kaakinen, predicts that this approach will eradicate homelessness by 2027.

The keys to Finland's success

  • Multiple governments, with different political coalitions, have been involved in driving and maintaining the work towards ending homelessness longitudinally. This has allowed the fight against homelessness to extend beyond the length of a single political term.
  • There is a wide partnership network involved in this initiative. The government, big cities and big NGOs are working together to achieve the same outcome: radical change.
  • Finland mandated that at least 25% of housing in a city must be affordable, social housing. This has kept access to affordable housing a realistic possibility for those experiencing homelessness and prevented Finland from experiencing the housing crisis many countries in Europe are currently experiencing.
  • The ideology or conviction that housing is a human right and that eradicating homelessness is an urgent and immediate issue that requires rapid and consistent efforts.

Japan's fight against homelessness

Japan is another country that is leading the charge to tackle homelessness. With a 12% drop in homelessness since 2018, Japan's population of people experiencing homelessness is roughly 3,992 people out of a population of 125 million.

Japan's approach is significantly different from Finland's: Japan makes it difficult to be homeless. For example, it is an official law that begging is not allowed and may be deemed a criminal offence. Homeless people are faced with the social prejudice that the cause of one's homelessness is one's responsibility.

Furthermore, the urban architecture of many cities is often designed to prevent people experiencing homelessness from sitting or sleeping on the streets.

Organisations such as the Tsukuroi Tokyo Fund have been making efforts to reduce the current state of homelessness by providing housing and employment to the people experiencing homelessness in Japan, as well as increasing the number of shelters available. Furthermore, they have made an array of social services and support services available to those experiencing homelessness to assist them in the transition to living independently.  

How big is the problem in Japan?

The actual state of Japan's homelessness situation has been under scrutiny. However, the invisibility of the homeless, perpetuated by Japan's culture of social etiquette, has led to many of the homeless trying not to be noticed, out of shame, finding their temporary housing off the streets in areas more out of sight.

Furthermore, it has been suggested that the Japanese Government's count of those experiencing homelessness does not consider Japan's "internet café refugees". This term has become a common way of describing those who spend their nights in 24-hour restaurants or internet cafés, often utilising the privacy of booths, showers and laundry services.

What can the UK learn from these countries?

In both of these countries, it is clear that two major factors need to be involved to effectively combat homelessness: Governmental strategy and NGO cooperation.

Consequently, the UK, and most of Europe, could take specific note of Finland's approach. The fundamental human rights ideology of housing, the longitudinal governmental strategy towards a solution, the allocation of necessary funds, and the cooperation across multiple levels of society are all required to create a sustainable and effective intervention. Moreover, the effectiveness of this approach is undoubted when considering the notable decline in Finland's population of those experiencing homelessness.


In conclusion, while it may not have the smallest homeless population or the lowest rate of homelessness in the world, Finland is the country that handles homelessness the best. With a marked decrease in homeless statistics and a trajectory towards eradicating homelessness by 2027, Finland's approach is sustainable and effective.

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