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Recovery begins with a home: Newly renovated Pessi offers more apartments for unhoused people

Värikkäitä seinämaalauksia ja pelejä yhteisötilassa.

Pessi, a housing service unit located in Helsinki’s Vallila district, provides 125 apartments for people with a history of substance abuse or mental health problems. After comprehensive renovation, the building can now accommodate more people who have experienced prolonged homelessness.

Blue Ribbon Ltd, a part of the Finnish non-profit Blue Ribbon Foundation Group, offers supported housing for unhoused people who suffer from substance abuse or mental health issues. Their largest housing service unit Pessi went through a massive renovation that was finalized in 2023. The parent foundation’s administration, whose office was in the same building, moved away to make space for 27 new apartments.

“Finding apartments for this customer group has proved extremely challenging. As a solution, we built more apartments to a property where we already have other people in a similar situation and services in place,” says Elli Korte-Lilja, Real Estate Manager at Blue Ribbon Foundation.

The renovation, which was financed through MuniFin’s social finance, added to both the building’s security and coziness. A new accessible 16-apartment unit was also built in the renovation process.

“For a long time, we have struggled with not being able to house people with mobility impairments at Pessi. Normally these people would resort to service housing or intensive service housing, but they aren’t allowed in due to a history of substance abuse. We had to build more apartments so that these people could get the support and help they need,” Business Director of Blue Ribbon, Sanni Joutsenlahti, explains.

Housing is a basic right, not a reward

According to 2023 data from Ara (The Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland), there are approximately 1,000 long-term homeless individuals in Finland. Ara based their data on information gathered from municipalities. Numbers are not available from all municipalities, which means that the actual number of long-term homeless people could be somewhat higher. A person is considered long-term homeless if they have been unhoused for at least one year or repeatedly over the last three years.

Blue Ribbon Foundation helps the most vulnerable and works to end homelessness. Blue Ribbon Ltd, belonging to the same group, provides supported housing according to the Housing First principle. This means that a permanent home is not viewed as a reward that needs to be earned through sobriety, but a home in itself is the first step on the road to recovery. Thanks to the Housing First model, Finland has been successful in reducing homelessness.

“The idea is that you can come live with us first; only then do we start thinking about your individual rehabilitation. When a person has a home and a place to rest their head, their circumstances in life also tend to calm down,” Sanni Joutsenlahti says.

Pessi residents have their own counselors to support them in rehabilitation and daily errands. Everything starts from the basics: first, the residents practice daily rhythms and regular mealtimes. Many residents need help with everyday chores, such as boiling potatoes, cleaning, or managing their own finances.

People lining up to get food and preparing food in the kitchen.

Finding your footing through community and action

Although the residents face various issues in their everyday lives, in many ways Pessi resembles any other housing association. In their weekly community meetings, the residents may discuss their communal sauna facilities, the draft coming through the windows, or other very similar matters to those discussed in countless other tenant meetings across the country.

The employees and residents form a tight-knit community that organizes plenty of joint activities, ranging from courtyard concerts to movie screenings and music groups. The residents are also offered peer groups that support rehabilitation.

Sanni Joutsenlahti has been thrilled about seeing how work has the capacity to help people. The building’s residents are offered opportunities to try their hand at various forms of employment and training.

“When offered this personal agency, people get to experience moments where they feel they are good at something. We have a lot of professionals living here, such as painters and electricians, and employment helps them get back on their feet. Many people start by doing small activities around the house. After noticing that they have the skills and energy to work, they may move on to rehabilitative work or work trials,” Joutsenlahti says.

“For someone, making oatmeal for the whole crew every Wednesday morning can be the most important thing in the world.”

Affordable social housing

The Finnish affordable social housing sector plays a significant role in the development of a sustainable welfare state. In Finland, affordable social housing is mainly provided by municipality-owned companies and nationwide non-profit organisations. MuniFin is the main financier of affordable social housing production in Finland. An increasing amount of housing in Finland is being constructed and financed with consideration for social and environmental factors.

Text: Taru Inkinen
Photos: Blue Ribbon Foundation