Breaking immigrants’ homelessness cycle through inclusive integration policies
The #MASE project, funded by ARA, examines immigrants’ homelessness path in Finland’s capital area. We intend to present some aspects of the study’s findings in this blog post.
In the #MASE study, we have interviewed so far 21 participants (16 men and 5 women) who have experienced homelessness in Finland’s capital area. For some, the problem has been resolved, but some are still homeless. The study started in September 2023, and it is still going on. The final report will be published in March 2024.
The portion of the homeless among immigrants, specifically in the capital area, is rather high. As of 2014, one out of four or one out of five homeless individuals had an immigrant background. In 2022, 26% of homeless individuals and 67% of homeless families in the capital region (Helsinki, Vantaa, and Espoo) were immigrants (ARA, 2010–2023). However, there is no detailed information about their backgrounds and paths to homelessness. Scientific research is needed to develop an effective homelessness policy and achieve housing equality.
Here we will discuss the homelessness journey of a specific group of immigrants who came to Finland as asylum seekers. While living in a reception center and waiting for the Migri (Finnish Immigration Service) decision on their asylum-seeking application, they found a job and ultimately obtained a residency permit based on work. The flowchart below illustrates their path to homelessness. Six participants who were single men experienced the same path.
First round of homelessness: The gap from Reception Center resident to Municipal Clients
Transitioning out of a reception center is a critical stage, as the individual is not yet a municipal client, has no language skills, and is unaware of the services available to them. These participants have experienced periods of homelessness because they were not supported when they found a job. One participant said: ”it is most difficult for those with work-based residence permit. We usually get no support because we work, and we are expected to handle the matter ourselves”.
Becoming a municipal client as a newcomer, after receiving a residence permit, involves registering the person’s address in the DVV (Digital and Population Data Services Agency) system as a foreigner. DVV registration as a foreigner takes time to finalize, currently 11–13 weeks (DVV, n.d.). It seems that some people remain uninformed and unaware that they are eligible for municipal support, especially as newcomers and have no information about services available by NGOs and this can ultimately lead to homelessness.
Two participants got work residence permit in 2017. It is important to mention that as a result of the massive migration to Finland and all of Europe in 2015–2017, immigrants’ homelessness in Finland reached its peak. Further, housing advice services and multilingual support by NGOs specifically for immigrants started in 2017. However, two other participants who came to Finland in 2015 and got residence permit based on work in 2021–2022 also experienced the same things. They have been living with different friends since then. They finally received the contact information from their friends about NGOs that provide housing advice for immigrants.
These participants have solved the first round of homelessness by getting information and help from their own language community who have Finnish or English language skills and have lived in Finland longer than them. According to them, none of them received any information from reception center staff.
Second round of homelessness: Low income and lack of affordable housing
In this specific group, three participants experienced a second round of homelessness after one or two years because of low income. They could not afford their apartment due to the high rent and were unable to find a new cheaper one, so they cancelled the lease agreement and started living with friends again. Although these participants have lived in Finland for several years, they are still unaware of the services available, lack Finnish language skills and rely on their own language communities.
One participant said: ”I feel very embarrassed every time I should ask friends to let me stay in their home. I am an adult, and I don’t have my own home. I cannot ask for any benefits form Kela (Social Insurance Institution). I asked advice from a lawyer, and he told me if I do so it might affect my application for permanent residence permit”.
Participants have tried to apply for city subsidized apartments, but they have not received any offers after many years of renewing applications. Two of these participants are still homeless even though they are in touch with NGOs that offer housing advice to immigrants. These NGOs help them to do housing applications regularly. They said that apartments are expensive in the capital area and there are very limited number of affordable places that they can apply for them. According to them, there is usually high competition and so far, they have not received any offers.
Final points and discussion
Homelessness experiences in this study shed light on systemic challenges associated with integration process, especially in the transition from reception centers to municipal services. Homelessness among immigrants is primarily attributed to a lack of language skills and knowledge, according to the interviews conducted. As a result of this deficiency, immigrants are at risk not only of initial homelessness but of recurrent homelessness as well.
These participants find themselves in a challenging situation, compelled to work full-time to maintain their residence permit. Further, due to the limited availability of affordable evening classes, they have difficulty participating in language courses. As a result of the tight schedule, they do not have time to improve their skills for professional advancement, so they remain in low-wage jobs. Achieving independence becomes a formidable challenge within this cycle, impacting their mental well-being. This is a complicated issue with multiple factors interplaying and influencing one another.
According to the Finnish constitution, access to housing and the ability to arrange one’s own accommodation are fundamental human rights, and it is the responsibility of public authorities to uphold and promote these rights (Laki: Suomen perustuslaki, 1999). A potential solution to disrupt the cycle of homelessness among immigrants could involve incorporating housing considerations into the integration plan.
Integration policies hold a vital role in the inclusion of immigrants, especially those in vulnerable categories such as refugees, elderlies, and individuals facing language barrier, literacy and digital literacy challenges. It seems that refugees often do not receive information about the available multilingual support services. The transition from the reception center to becoming a municipal client is a critical step in preventing homelessness. It is essential for individuals to have access to information about the welfare system, housing application system, their rights, and responsibilities, taking into account each person’s unique educational background, language skills, and abilities.
In Finland, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment holds the responsibility for integration legislation, with a primary focus on promoting the smooth integration and inclusion of immigrants into Finnish society to prevent discrimination (Laki: kotoutumisen edistämisestä, 2023). The process involves collaboration between municipalities, the Employment and Economic Development Offices (T.E. offices), and educational institutions, aiming to tailor integration plan to each individual’s unique needs. This plan emphasizes language proficiency in either Finnish or Swedish and equips immigrants with the skills needed for employment as well as knowledge of Finnish culture and society (Kenelle kotoutumissuunnitelma tehdään?, n.d.; Kotoutumiskoulutus, 2023).
However, challenges have arisen in maintaining the integration plan’s core objectives due to resource constraints and the plan’s generalization across immigrants with diverse backgrounds, needs, and skills. Even though crucial component of the plan is Finnish or Swedish language teaching, according to OECD over 80% of participants fell short of reaching the desired Level B1.1. While this proficiency level may be sufficient for certain jobs and specific life situations. Further, these courses are offered cost free only to unemployed immigrants with a residence permit. Unfortunately, this approach excludes individuals who work full-time, engage in full-time studies, or cannot commit to daily language school attendance. In addition, there are long queues for integration plan language courses, even though they are supposed to begin within 1–2 months after assessing language skills. (Heikkilä & Peltonen, 2002; Koskela, 2014; Lehtimaja, 2017; OECD, 2018; Bontenbal & Lillie, 2022; Kotoutumiskoulutus, 2023).
The new integration act will be enforced in 2025. Under this new act, municipalities will take on the responsibility of implementing integration plans to expedite the integration process. It’s been underscored that the integration process should commence immediately. Promoting employment of women, immigrants who are outside of labor force and cooperation with third sector are the highlights of the new act. The integration plan currently spans three years, with the possibility of extending it for a maximum of two additional years in cases where there are specific needs and valid reasons, as determined through an assessment conducted during the initial three years. However, as of 2025, this duration will be reduced to two years, with the same potential for a two-year extension as before. This alteration has raised concerns among many experts who question whether it will accelerate the integration process for immigrants, as cited by the government as the rationale for this modification (Laki: kotoutumisen edistämisestä, 2023; Finnish Government, 2021).
Integration policies play a crucial role in equipping immigrants with essential skills to prevent discrimination and reduce homelessness. The importance of these policies for immigrants’ inclusion and avoidance of discrimination is evident. Challenges such as language proficiency, and unfamiliarity with housing, and welfare system, support services as well as owns right can contribute to immigrants’ homelessness. To address these issues effectively, it’s essential to start the integration plan early, immediately after an individual receives their residence permit and wants to move out of the reception center, regardless of whether the person is employed or not. Alternatively, the newly residence permit holder can get information about the services available by the third sector.
Timely and tailored information about the welfare and housing system, finances, and comprehensive language training for everyone, including employed individuals, students, and those working full-time, are integral components of an effective integration plan.
It is evident from the #MASE project’s findings that inclusive integration policies are crucial, especially during the transition from reception centers to municipal services. The study highlights the importance of language training, early integration planning, and timely information dissemination in addressing systemic challenges. While the upcoming integration act in 2025 holds promise, its successful implementation is crucial to avoiding compromises in the integration process. To foster a more inclusive society, Finland must prioritize equipping immigrants with essential skills and knowledge through effective integration policies, thereby reducing and preventing homelessness among this vulnerable population.
Researcher, Ph.D., Sininauhasäätiö
The MASE project received funding from ARA in 2023. The aim of this project is to conduct small-scale research to collect more information about immigrants who are currently homeless or those who have experienced homelessness. Participants will be interviewed to collect data about their background and their paths to homelessness. The project will run from September 2023 until February 2024. The project report will be published in March 2024.
ARA reports (2010–2023). Retrieved September 2023.
Bontenbal, I., & Lillie, N. (2022). Minding the gaps: The role of Finnish civil society organizations in the labour market integration of migrants. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 33(5), 862-871.
DVV (n.d.). Registration of a foreigner’s personal data in the Population Information System. Retrieved October 2023.
Finnish Government (2021. June 17). Government report proposes extensive program to speed up integration of immigrants. Retrieved October 2023.
Heikkilä, E., & Peltonen, S. (2002). Immigrants and integration in Finland. Survey: About the situation of immigrants and refugees in six Baltic Sea States. Developed within the framework of the European Community Action, SOCRATES.
Kenelle kotoutumissuunnitelma tehdään? (n.d.) Kotoutumis.fi. Retrieved October 2023.
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Lehtimaja, I. (2017). Korkeakoulutetun maahanmuuttajan oikeus oppia suomea. Kieli, koulutus ja yhteiskunta.
OECD (2018). Working together: Skills and labour market integration of immigrants and their children in Finland. OECD, Paris, France.