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Helsinki plans to open temporary emergency shelters to all in need

The Helsinki City Board has decided to open up the city’s emergency shelters to everyone in need, regardless of nationality or residential status. In the heart of the freezing winter last year, instances of people being turned away for lack of papers made headlines. 

A Roma baby at the Hirunda day centre. Image: Yle

The city of Helsinki’s guidelines for providing shelter are changing now that the board has decided to offer temporary emergency accommodation to everyone in need. The municipal decision-makers say that Helsinki’s goal moving forward will be to prevent any overnight deaths on the city’s winter streets. 

At present, the Hietaniemenkatu service centre for the homeless in Helsinki only offers shelter to people who can prove they are residents of the city. If an EU citizen without a residence permit seeks assistance, for example, the current Helsinki policy says that it will only help if the person in need agrees to return to their country of origin. 

City officials point out that even if the board has now opened shelter doors to all, Helsinki is in no place to offer permanent accommodations and repeat visitors who are not residents of the city will still be turned away.

“If a person who is not in real distress comes to us repeatedly to partake of our services even after arrangements were made to return them to their home country, the city will not offer this person emergency shelter,” says Juha Jolkkonen of Helsinki city administration.

Jolkkonen points out that Finnish law requires that shelter occupants register before they are admitted.

Easing the plight of the Roma and others

Finland’s Deaconess Institute also offers temporary shelter and services to homeless and nomadic Roma people in Finland. Helsinki works regularly with organizations like this where papers aren’t required.  Helsinki must decide about continuing funding for this cooperation yet this year.

The new guidelines are expected to help the several hundred ethnic Roma people originating from Eastern Europe who live in the city without a residence. Many sleep outdoors in the city during months with bearable weather, but rely heavily on emergency shelters when the weather gets cold. A unit in the Hermanni district of Helsinki has been established to cater to the Roma group’s needs, but it is already running at capacity.

“There is a distinct group that needs these services,” confirms Anca Enache, a project manager for the Deaconess Institute’s Hirundo day centre.

Avoid a repeat of last winter

Enache says the number of people in need of shelter for the night varies. Growing numbers of denied asylum seekers are joining the Roma; it is hard to predict how many of them there will be when outdoor temperatures become dangerous 

“There is a clear need for a shelter with a very low threshold to service,” Enache says.

Helsinki has changed its guidelines because it is seeking to avoid a repeat of last winter, when scores of individuals, mostly Roma, were turned away from a warm bed because they weren’t residents of the city. 

Concerned citizens brought the matter before the parliamentary ombudsman. Later, Helsinki’s Social Services and Health Care Committee ruled that the city must change its guidelines before the onset of winter this year.

Councillors Thomas Wallgrén of the Social Democrats and Veronika Honkasalo of the Greens were behind the initiative to change the city’s shelter policy. The board decision must still be confirmed by the City Council before it can be enacted.