Sarah Hough on ‘being seen, being heard, being loved and being accepted: reflections on women, health and homelessness conference in Finland’

A combination of long term, affordable housing and gender and trauma informed support are the key to preventing unhoused woman repeating the cycle of homelessness.

First published September 2019 by Sarah Hough, Research Project Worker, Groundswell.

Suzy and I were delighted to be invited to Helsinki by FEANTSA, the only European NGO focusing exclusively on the fight against homelessness, to represent Groundswell’s Insight and Action team. We presented to FEANTSA members about Groundswell’s current peer research on homeless women’s health and took part in the conference. We learned about services in Finland, Hungry, Ireland, UK, Slovenia, Poland, France and Denmark which demonstrated the excellent work that our European colleagues are doing to support insecurely housed women in their countries.

The universal language which many professionals find most effective when working with unhoused women is a non-judgemental, empathetic and loving approach. Two examples of this were the island of Vartiosaari, and Liisankoti Women’s housing unit.

Vartiosaari island consists of cabins which are used to accommodate people and many of these cabins have been made by unhoused people for themselves, and for other people to use. The island accepts individuals, couples and even allows dogs which is something we struggle with in the UK. Currently only 9% of hostels in the UK are dog friendly, meaning that people who are homeless with a dog are denied access to the shelter and support they need. Homelessness services have historically been reluctant to offer housing and support to couples. As a result, people are often faced with a choice between their housing and their partner, and this often extends the time they are homeless on the streets. The island offers a true unconditional person-centred approach.

Many UK services are restricted due to demanding, intense caseloads, lack of budgets and funder or commissioner set targets. The space offered by the island promotes freedom and choice, it is optional for residents to take part in the community or to withdraw if they need time and space to themselves. Residents prepare food and eat together which helps with building relationships. The island is available all year around and welcomes people to spend time in nature and a community.

Liisankoti Women’s housing unit is in the heart of Helsinki city a short distance from the harbour. They provide 24-hour supported housing for women who need community support for substance abuse and recovery. Liisankoti is designed for women who have reduced chances of independent living perhaps due to old age, substance misuse or physical health needs.

The unit is homely, communal and very spacious (contrasting housing units in UK which are usually cramped with small rooms).  We met some of the staff and residents who spoke about life at the unit. The unit has a cook who prepares healthy nutritional food (we sampled the lovely cauliflower soup and carrot cake!) and encourages residents and staff to eat meals together in the dining room. The unit is part of the community and their neighbours are regularly invited for poetry readings or discos. This helps to build and sustain relationships with other members of the community, reducing social exclusion, stigma and discrimination.  There is no limit on the length of time woman can stay at the unit, some chose to remain until the end of their lives. This place offers security, something many of the residents have never felt before.

Both Vartiosaari island and Liisankoti Women’s housing unit can teach us a lot about providing space and the right environment for healing, they show us what can happen when we work in an inclusive, person-centred way. The preliminary findings of Groundswell’s research with homeless woman shows that woman often repeat the cycle of homelessness; 42% had been homeless before (full report to be launched in the next couple of months). The most common reasons for becoming homeless are physical health issues, mental health issues, domestic abuse and relationship breakdown.

A combination of long term, affordable housing and gender and trauma informed support are the key to preventing unhoused woman repeating the cycle of homelessness. Finland seems to have figured this out with its housing first approach and its excellent long-term support services. Let’s hope the UK follows Finland’s excellent example.