Canada will have committed a “moral failure” if it’s unable to solve its homelessness crisis like Finland has done through its “Housing First” program, federal Infrastructure, Housing and Communities Minister Sean Fraser told a national webinar audience.

The webinar, held in front of a live audience of 500 people in Ottawa but streamed to audiences across the country, was held Jan. 16. It was presented by the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa in partnership with the Canadian Housing & Renewal Association, Carleton University, the Safe & Affordable grant, and the Housing Assessment Resource Tools (HART).  

The panel included Teija Ojankoski, CEO of Finland’s Y-Foundation, which led the country’s Housing First initiative; and Juha Kahila, Head of its International Affairs. The other panelists were Sean Fraser, Canada’s Minister of Housing, Infrastructure, and Communities; and Jocelyn Formsma, Executive Director of the National Association of Native Friendship Centres, and Board Chair of the National Indigenous Collaborative Housing Inc. (NICHI).

Finland, a country with a population of 5.5 million people, has only 3000 people living without housing and is the only country in the European Union where homelessness is declining. Their goal is to eradicate homelessness by 2027. In just the City of Ottawa, there are more than 2000 people living without shelter today.

“When I see the investments over what’s, frankly, not that long a time horizon in Finland, it gives me faith that if we continue to work with people who know what they’re talking about in your community, make the reasonable resources available to build the infrastructure within a reasonable period of time, it’s not too far of a stretch to imagine that homelessness can be eliminated in Canada,” Fraser said. “And, frankly, I think if we stopped short of that, as the goal we strive for, we will have committed a moral failure.”

Kahila said Finland decided in 2008 to invest in social housing – paid for by the government – to provide long-term shelter to people who had experienced homelessness. The decision was based on the belief that issues such as mental illness and addiction often cannot be solved until someone has a stable and adequate place to live, combined with supportive services. The initiative not only cut the homeless population dramatically, but it saved money because other costs, such as policing and health, were reduced.

Fraser said “non-market housing” must play a large role in the solution for Canada as well, noting that a succession of federal governments have opted not to invest in non-market housing for 30 years “and we’re paying for it today.” But, he added, Canada also needs to find ways to build affordable housing faster and all levels of government need to end exclusive zoning which prevents the construction of anything but single-family housing.

“We need to clean up the way that we zone so people actually can build the homes, for instance, and we need to equip the Canadian industry to actually get them built,” he said.
Formsma said Canada also “needs to tear down the jurisdictional wrangling between federal, provincial, municipal and indigenous governments.”