Why the US keep failing homelessness and what is so special about Finland?
I was sitting by the famous fountain on the UN plaza enjoying a warm day of the San Franciscan spring and great Internet reception when a person whom I would call Mark approached me with a very unusual request. Shaven, clean and stylishly dressed gentleman in his 40’s Mark looked anything but homeless, but many years of experience with street personalities taught me that they are no less diverse than a society which created them and can be dressed in any way or style. The only reason I supposed that Mark could have been homeless is that regular “lay” people usually don’t feel comfortable around street people in their hub on the UN plaza.
Mark was attracted by my notebook moving with the speed of light between pages of the sites thanks to free city-provided wireless. The question or request of Mark was to explore most common reasons for the incarceration. I assumed that Mark was trying to find his lost friend, which commonly happens to street people who are often arrested for violating of one of the myriad city regulations that prohibit sitting, eating, or laying in public places, as well as regulating dozens of other activities which a normal person couldn’t even think of as being regulated.
- “Do you want to look through arrests or new inmates to look for you friend?” I asked.
- “My friend can’t get into prison, but he wants to,” answered Mark.
I heard a few times from people exhausted by the street life that they consider staying in prison to take a break, but those who considered prison more acceptable were usually confused and uncertain. Mark’s calm acceptance of the situation together with his appearance made his words unusual in context. Yes, Mark was absolutely serious. The question he asked was not a burning issue for him or his friends, but he considered that information he asked for may become important and useful someday.
I started an article with this conversation because it illustrates the desperate futility and wastefulness of the American approach to dealing with homelessness. Sometime in the first part of the last century, some part of the population became absolutely convinced of the million times disproved idea that force and severe punitive measures are the best way of solving social problems. In the case of homelessness, the uselessness and even counter-productivity of such approaches was many times exacerbated by Reagan’s campaign to blame the victim and to absolve the government from providing help. It seemed that there was no stigma which he didn’t try to pin on homeless people. Homelessness was declared a matter of choice and was supposendly explained by lack of effort, laziness, stupidity and other barely related phenomena.
Different faces of homelessness
The difficulties of comparing homelessness in different countries lies in the absence of a commonly accepted definition, unreliable statistics and huge variations in the situations and challenges unhoused people face. For example, New Zealand considers people who are unable to rent or buy a home and live in the government provided housing as homeless. The situation of homeless people is also impacted by the cultural and economic situation of the country, but without any surveys I would not dare to suggest that life on the street is hardly that untolerable anywhere in the world that people seriously consider prison a better alternative.
In India being on the street is practically a part of the ancient culture, so much that some of the spiritual teachers of the past recommended spending some time in life without any worldly possessions as a spiritual practice. Such cultural specifics impact public attitude, but what is probably even more important is that it affects how homeless people see themselves, leaving place for dignity and self-respect.
In Israel, where people sleeping in public places only started to happen in the last 10 to 15 years, general public compassion toward people in desperate conditions makes the environment radically different in that sense. It is hard to imagine Israelis sleeping in public places being robbed and harassed. Not only do they not have to worry about their documents and meager possessions at night, but there is a good chance that waking up in the morning they can find food or even money left for them by other people.
What makes Mark’s friend’s situation “worse than prison” is for the large part stigma, which as I concluded mostly from reading is incomparable with any other country. Social conditions make restful six hour night sleep beyond any wildest dreams, while hygiene and diet are part of the constant daily struggle for survival. Having rest in public in most of the areas of San Francisco is impossible due to vigilant residents who immediately call police on anyone who seemingly “does not belong” to the area according to the way a person looks or behaves. On the street, Mark needs to protect himself from virtually everybody – from police observing the residents not violating do-not-sit, do-not-drink regulations to young addicts who may conclude due to his disguise that he has money.
Being on the street in the US is permanent struggle for survival, hardly giving a moment’s break. Some people start matching the worst stereotypes after being homeless for just a few months, while others find energy and strength to stay afloat, but in any case it is a severe emotional and psychological trauma that could have been prevented in case of different social attitudes. Just in case somebody never heard it, I wanted to remind readers of the fact that regular sleep deprivations experienced by many American homeless people on a regular basis fit commonly accepted definitions of torture.
Informing our readers about some general facts about homeless in other countries, I have mentioned in the previous articles on this theme that due to global economic trends, presently renting a place becomes a serious challenge for many people all over the world, but despite everything there are some countries where homelessness in the most strict definition barely exists. One of such countries calls itself Suomi and is known to the outside world as Finland.
If you ask about the secret behind the Finland’s success story, my take is it is Suomi spirit, which is called Sisu in Finnish. Yes, Finns actively follow a “housing first” approach, but it has been accepted now as the only way to come closer to a solution by most of the first-world countries. Nothing they do is revolutionary or radically different from many other countries. Finns help people by providing counselling and housing. So do many other countries. The difference should be not in what they do, but HOW they do it, and to come closer to understanding we need to explore the word sisu, meaning Suomi spirit in Finnish.
According to Wikipedia, the word sisu has no English equivalent and devotes a long article to its description. “Sisu is a grim, gritty, white-knuckle form of courage that is typically presented in situations where success is against the odds. It expresses itself in taking action against the odds and displaying courage and resoluteness in the face of adversity, in other words, deciding on a course of action and then sticking to that decision even despite repeated failures. It is in some ways similar to equanimity, with the addition of a grim kind of stress management.”
For me, the best illustration of sisu is the Finnish history of the WWII period. Unfortunately, the average American does not much about the Winter War – the unique show of heroism when three and half million Finns with 32 tanks faced on the battlefield the empire of over two hundred million citizens moving over the border over five thousand tanks. Finns decided to fight in that situation when other countries like Latvia and Estonia having a comparable population size decided that armed resistance was futile, and Finns stopped the advance of the Soviet army, inflicting incredible losses. Even according to the official accounts, Stalin manipulated statistics, Soviet losses were almost ten times higher than Finnish. Catastrophic defeats of the Soviet army made many soldiers (one of whom was my grandfather) start doubting Stalin’s propaganda, which told them that the Finnish working class was waiting for the Soviet liberators. Disillusioned soldiers left their units en masse, which forced Stalin to end the military campaign.
To protect itself from further Russian provocations during the war, Finland entered into a formal union of cooperation with Germany. However, when Hitler demanded Finland join other coalition countries in their effort to achieve “a final solution” of the Jewish problem, Finns responded with resolute refusal. Finns didn’t differentiate between citizens of the country. They considered the big Swedish community, Russian minority, Jews and other different ethnicities living on their territory to be Suomi whom they were ready to protect, and Hitler decided not to mess with Finns.
Finns and Americans?
To formulate the difference of between the Finnish and American approaches to homelessness, it would be safe to conclude that Americans are desperately making an effort to reduce the number of the homeless people while Finns help their unfortunate compatriots who are unable to rent. It is logical that with present approach, no miraculous legal or financial initiative will be able to resolve the issue. Waiting for it is like expecting that the market and the right laws will transform a cannibalist tribe into a prosperous Western-type society.
Unfortunately, we have inherited from the 20th century a poisonous and destructive belief that social problems are resolved with strict laws – the more severe the punishment the better, and no amount of social experience, logic and common sense is capable of making the followers of this worldview to question it, especially considering the fact that such values became fundamental for the Republican party. What makes this myth especially destructive is the fact that it relies on the punitive measures at the sake of socio-political maturity.
Following the rules of civilized society and law-obedience are achieved more so due to the political consciousness of the citizens than to the preventive power of the law. SImilar to how such qualities as good driving, manners, and respect of the opposite sex exist much more because of education and upbringing rather than due to fear of punishment. Criminals find ways of violating laws without being punished, and many ot their simple scams are common knowledge. Despite that, relatively low numbers of people are involved in criminal activities.
Punishment does not have to be severe–it has to be reasonable and just to maintain the respect of law among the population. Unreasonable severe punishment is counterproductive, like electroshocking school kids for not doing homework. It was proved a million times in the history of different countries. People stop reporting crimes and cooperate with the law enforcement. People do not want their neighbours to be executed or their hands being cut for stealing, so they stop cooperating with law enforcement. Such was the situation in post-revolutionary Russia, Islamic countries which tried to introduce the strictest literal understanding of the Sharia laws and many other countries.
Change? Yes, We Can!
So, one of the most important conditions for eradicating homelessness is changing public attitude. In order to stress the importance of the paradigm change, educating people about the realities of street life and its financial impact is a long time overdue, not just because it is needed to resolve a problem, but simply because it is a truth which voters need to know. No human or artificial intelligence can make correct decisions based on lies and falsifications, and all the US homelessness policies are based on perverted views indoctrinated by several Republican administrations pursuing their need of the moment.
I devoted several paragraphs in the beginning of the article to my recent “weird” conversation because it clearly demonstrates the stupidity of belief in combating homelessness by criminalization. You cannot punish people not having their homes any more than they are already punished by being on the street.
Homelessness destroys people morally, psychologically and physically. Countries investing considerable human and financial resources in homelessness prevention know that every dollar spent for these purposes is a great investment into well-being of the country. Being a street-smart person who is capable of surviving outdoors requires developing traits which are exactly opposite to those needed for the success in the civilized society, like not trusting people or knowing how violate the laws without being punished. Canadian doctor Gabor Mate describes an incident when one of his clients stole a parker pen from his office. When Dr. Mate found this client, he apologized explaining that he did it absolutely automatically, and if he hadn’t learned how to do such acts without even thinking, he wouldn’t have been alive. Considering serious psychological trauma, loss of social skills and health, and other problems caused by homelessness, social rehab is costing tens or maybe even a hundred times more than prevention.