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A home of my own via 50 sofas

Most homeless people don’t spend the night in doorways or shelters but with friends. Jaakko, 23, reckons he slept on about 50 sofas at friends’ places before he was able to move to his new home.

By Anna-Sofia Nieminen
Photos by Laura Oja

Brown armchairs, green curtains. The right table and the right bed. Jaakko, who has had a couple of spells of homelessness, has just moved to his new flat and explains how he’s furnished it. He’s had a good night’s sleep in a proper bed.

“I bet that if I’d simply moved in somewhere, I would never have had any furniture for it. I’d have just dragged some piss-stained old mattress out of a dumpster.”

Jaakko moved to a supported housing community in Espoo. He meets with a support person regularly, and now and then he and others from the community maybe go bowling or out to eat. Each of the young people there has a one-room flat. Jaakko too has a 36 square meter place of his own.

Once you get some basics like a table and bed the place starts to look furnished. Jaakko has seen masses of flats in his time where a mattress on the floor, a sofa from the recycling centre and bags scattered around the place serve as decor. That’s why getting a table feels odd, but good.

“It feels more like home than I’ve felt about any flat before.”

Jaakko became homeless when he was 18 because of family problems. He says that for eight months he slept on any friend’s couch. If he spent any length of time somewhere, he’d pay “rent”, though if you’re homeless you don’t get any housing support.

Jaakko’s second spell of homelessness was about a year ago. In principle it didn’t last for more than a few months. But he opted to move into a place that he says was tantamount to being homeless – a cesshole in a cellar that wasn’t registered for habitation, which was damp and cold, with no proper ventilation and bug infested. He says he rented the place for nine months but spent half the time roughing it at friend’s places.

“With spells of homelessness life is characterised by not having any way on your own terms.”

There’s no peace and quiet that you can retreat to. You’re stressed lest you end up get stuck roughing it at friends’ places. There’s nowhere for you things except a backpack.

Jaakko twice had a place of his own between the spells of homelessness. At one stage he left the capital to go and study in Turku, but dropped out two and a half years later because severe depression was holding up his studies.

His depression led to loss of self-motivation, which led to loss of solvency and impaired credit. He simply wasn’t interested in, say, paying his electricity bill before being disconnected.

According to statistics from the Housing Finance Development Centre of Finland, at the end of 2016 there were 7 450 homeless people in Finland. In reality, the figure is probably higher because a portion of homelessness is hidden.

By far the majority of homeless people are accommodated by friends and family. This was the case with Jaakko. He never ended up on the street. He reckons that he slept on maybe 50 sofas at various people’s homes. He’d even spend several months with some friends.

“Youth are not the ones who you see in doorways. And they don’t use night shelters. They seek out their friends and acquaintances and crash at their places”, says Piia Aho, who works as a mentor with Vamos Espoo. One reason, she thinks, is that they feel ashamed. They’re afraid of the stigma.

About 1 400 of the homeless people covered in the statistics were under 25 years of age. Piia Aho says that with young people there is no single cause of homelessness, but often there is a background of substance, mental health or other health problems.

The Helsinki Deaconess Institute’s Vamos youth service arranges activities for young people, and these aim to get youth oriented to training or employment. With homeless young people, Vamos starts off by helping them get a place to live.

Jaakko also got his new supported flat with Vamos’ help. He still has to learn to take care of various basic things before he can start to think about finding work or paying off his debts.

“Everything’s been pretty upside down – from washing, eating and sleeping.”

He says that when he was homeless he would manage to clean other people’s flats and prepare meals by way of thanks for being accommodated. But it takes some learning when you have to manage to do such things for yourself.

“Now its good to learn when there’s someone watching that I eat and clean up!

 

October 2017