For the third time in his life, Rauno has found shelter on the 5th floor of the Service Centre.

Situated in the always-bustling Kamppi area of Helsinki, the Hietaniemenkatu Service Centre opened its doors for the first time in June 2009. Back then, the City of Helsinki decided that two of the main institutions in charge of providing social aid, the Herttoniemi dormitories and the Pääskylänrinne day centre (Sörnäinen), didn’t have sufficient capacity to answer the growing demand for assistance. Instead, a new place needed to be found where all the services the City intended to offer could be gathered: emergency shelter, day care activities and temporary housing.

Furthermore, this is one of the tools that the Finnish authorities rely on to achieve their national programme to reduce (or even eliminate) long-term homelessness by 2015. This political commitment undertaken more than five years ago establishes its bases on the “Housing First” principle, which considers that permanent accommodation is a prerequisite for solving other communal and health issues. Following this approach, social policy efforts must lead to the creation of a widened network of dwellings and support housing units for individuals at risk of poverty. A total of 1,600 additional apartments have been built inside the framework provided by the programme.

However, this figure seems to be insufficient for Katri Joutselainen, an experienced social worker who works at the Service Centre. “We have new customers every week, sometimes even every day,” she states. “There is a need for more temporary housing and lower rents. Renting fees are so expensive in Helsinki that there are people, especially immigrants coming from Africa, who, even if they are working and don’t manifest any health issues, are not able to meet the regular tenancy agreements.”

Joutselainen further gaps in the system. “In the end, they come to our centre looking for a place to spend the night, but there is not a pleasant atmosphere waiting for them in here because they have to share rooms with people who have substance-abuse problems, an extended profile among the majority of our customers.”

In 2012, a total of 782 people lived in the Centre (627 made use of the emergency shelter, while 155 were granted a room at the temporary accommodation), with 82 per cent of them being males. The most represented age group is the one ranging between 30 to 49, to which half of the residents belong. Although the overall number of assisted has slightly decreased over the last two years, a new worrisome trend has entered the equation. “Lately we are getting younger customers, usually in their 20s, with very conflicted backgrounds,” Joutselainen explains. In some cases they are addicted to drugs, have criminal records, and even suffer from different kinds of mental diseases.”

1st floor

The area of the Centre closest to the ground contains the emergency night shelter, open from 5 pm to 8 am. As the service is intended for homeless people, no payment is required. The only preconditions are that the person is aged 18 or above and has been registered in Helsinki for around one year. Here there are 43 beds available for men and 9 for women, with the shared rooms distributed according to gender. When the emergency shelter reaches its full capacity, a circumstance that takes place several times a year, those who don’t get in are sent to Kalkkers, a night café in Mäkelänkatu (Pasila), open solely in wintertime.

Trying to nap without much success on one of the benches in the common areas, we meet Ahmad Fathi (38). Though not originally from Finland, dark-brown haired Ahmad has spent more than 30 years here. He currently sleeps at the emergency shelter – a situation he previously found himself under back in 2011. As he sufferers from multiple sclerosis, he is not able to work on a regular basis; in addition, he started having problems with his pension some time ago. He says that his only expectation is to be granted a bed there, on the 1st floor; a place in which he feels he doesn’t have any impositions to carry on with his life. When we ask him what his future looks like he doesn’t need much time to come up with an answer, which turns out to be both poetic and disconcerting: “I am a dancer. I want to dance.”

2nd floor

This part of the building is dedicated to daily activities that can be enjoyed anonymously by anyone interested – sleeping at the Centre is not a condition. It includes a restaurant that offers free breakfast and an affordable lunch and dinner (€1.00), sauna, bath and clothing services. There is also a common living room with a TV, newspapers and access to the Internet.

Visiting the restaurant on the 2nd floor and wearing a varied collection of rings, bracelets and necklaces, we meet Marina Laurila (47). She represents one of the success stories in the history of the Centre. When she arrived asking for support she was in wretched shape. Addicted to drugs and stealing compulsively, she applied for temporary accommodation after spending a few nights at the emergency lodging and was granted a personal room on the 3rd floor. Eventually the social workers found a place where she could stay, a support living facility, like the ones generally run by third sector actors such as The Salvation Army. Nowadays she is under methadone treatment and has managed to stay clear from drugs for one year now. When asked what the Centre means for her, she only has one thing to say: “These people are in my heart”.

3rd floor

This space is intended (similar to the other two remaining upper floors) for temporary housing. When the clients have spent around a month at the overnight emergency service, they can apply for a room at the mid-term accommodation facilities. From there, social workers and instructors study each case separately, conducting interviews with the residents in order to find the most suitable place for them to move out to. The constant circulation of tenants inside the building is one of its main functioning principles.

There is not any rental contract between the parties in the temporary accommodation, but a daily fee of 13.40 euros (around 400 euros per month) is required. However, the rent the tenants have to pay depends on their income, with the final fee established by the resident’s ability to pay. In Finland the basic economic aid granted by social services is set at 477.26 euros a month. Thus, the residents who depend solely on this social grant will not be required to pay any rent. If, on the contrary, the customer gets a higher income, let’s say of around 600 euros, they would have to contribute with 122.74 euros to the monthly fee.

The 3rd floor hosts seven rooms for men with disabilities and nine rooms for women. The common spaces include a kitchen, a living room and a smoking room where the walls are decorated with pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin.

Engaged in cheerful chattering with some colleagues on the 3rd floor, we meet Maria Makanzu (55). Maria has been living at the Centre for about two months. She arrived to Helsinki 20 years ago as a political refugee escaping the war in her home country, Angola. Since then, she has mainly worked as a cleaner. One day she decided to go back to Africa to visit her family. However, some complications concerning her passport turned what was supposed to be a short visit into a two-year stay. When she was finally able to return to Finland, where her daughter and grandchild were waiting for her, she had no place to live anymore; even her furniture had been taken away. That’s how she ended up asking for support at the Service Centre, a place she is generally comfortable with, except for the fact that children are not allowed inside, so she needs to meet up with her relatives elsewhere.

4th floor

The rooms available in this area (18 in total) differ from the rest, as residents who are intoxicated on arrival are provided with accommodation here, although substance abuse is not allowed in the building itself. The Centre has two doctors and two nurses among the staff who are in charge of monitoring the health of the tenants and, if necessary, creating a treatment plan. If somebody is in a very bad shape they are guided to a detoxification centre. Usually alcohol users spend one week at the Hangonkatu Rehabilitation Facility before returning to their rooms. For drug abusers the process is a bit longer and consists of one month at the Järvenpään Sosiaalisairaala (Järvenpää Addiction Hospital).

Slowly strolling down the corridor on the 4th floor we find Kari Seppälä (62). This is the first time he is living at the Centre. He moved here last September, after being unable to pay his rent for a few months in his old apartment. He thinks that the Centre has provided him with a safe atmosphere, difficult to come by elsewhere. His future, however, remains uncertain. “Everything depends now on the options I get from the social workers,” Kari says, his tired light-blue eyes still trying to smile.

5th floor

The highest level of the building has another 18 rooms aimed at the residents who try to break away from their alcohol and drug abuse habits. Thus, access to these facilities is denied to those who manifest any level of intoxication, in which case the tenants will have to spend the night again at the 1st floor.

We knock on a door, and Rauno Liuhto (57) warmly welcomes us in. Soon after, projecting a trembling but imposing voice, he starts to tell about his unfortunate life story. He moved to the Centre for the first time in June 2009. All through that summer he spent his nights sleeping at the emergency accommodation, and his days drinking at a nearby park. “Almost every day I got so drunk that they had to pick me up from the area with a stretcher, because I wasn’t even able to walk by myself,” Rauno remembers. He was then given a room on the 5th floor, where he managed to remain sober for 10 months before they offered him an apartment in Mäkelänkatu. But the same day he moved out he started drinking again, and then one month later he stabbed another tenant, while under the influence of alcohol. He didn’t go to jail but the court sentence made it clear that this was his last chance. He went back to the Hietaniemenkatu Service Centre, and continued drinking. Eventually he moved to the 5th floor again, stayed sober, and after some time he was granted a studio apartment in Kontula. But upon moving he picked up his old habit again, even though he was attending the Hangonkatu Rehabilitation Centre for detoxification. Four weeks later he was back here. “I have wasted my life with alcohol and drugs,” he laments. “I have problems with walking. My brain is damaged as well.” Now he thinks he is in such a bad condition that his body can’t handle any more alcohol. Maybe this time it’s definite.

Text and images Eva Blanco