Can the Housing First Approach Succeed in Malaysia?

While the Housing First approach could work wonders in Malaysia, we first need to ensure that all other elements align with the strategy to guarantee its effectiveness.

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Published in BusinessToday & AstroAwani, image by AstroAwani.

Homelessness is a longstanding and serious issue, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis has become even more severe as the pandemic pushed already vulnerable households and individuals into a deeper hardship.

In Malaysia, it can be challenging to pin down the exact number of homeless people. For one, despite having the Destitute Persons Act 1977, there is no consensus on how to define “homeless people” (Dietrich, 2018).

Secondly, we lack proper documentation on the homeless population, possibly due to the absence of a clear definition in Malaysia. The most recent data available were mentioned in a publication from April of 2023, where the report stated that social welfare officers had detained 14,863 beggars between 2015 and 2019. Additionally, the report suggests that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as much as 20% to 30% of city dwellers are expected to become homeless.

Although the government has provided temporary housing and career opportunities to the homeless, the result of the intervention may be lackluster. According to a study by Zyed et al. (2024) on the challenges of housing continuity for homeless people in Klang Valley, multiple stakeholders from government agencies have stated that an undisclosed number of individuals receiving assistance revert to homelessness.

Due to the lack of documentation, it is hard to verify the accuracy of these statements. Nevertheless, this situation suggests the need for a new strategy to reduce our homeless population.

Housing First

To address this issue, we should look to one of the most successful countries in reducing their homeless population: Finland.

In 2008, the Finnish government adopted the Housing First approach, a holistic approach to solving homelessness. Rather than offering services without providing permanent shelter, they prioritise giving homeless people permanent housing first.

They believe that housing is a fundamental right for their citizens and a prerequisite for solving other problems. After providing homeless individuals with permanent housing, the Finnish government offers them various services, including rehabilitation, mental healthcare if needed, and career development programs, ensuring that people can sustain themselves in the future.

This notion is supported by various studies, which found that individuals in Housing First programs, even before Finland popularised the approach, have significantly higher utilisation of substance abuse treatment, and lower rates of detoxification use and incarceration (Tsemberis et al., 2004; Perlman & Parvensky, 2006). In other words, this approach reduces overdosing and crime rates on the streets.

It is important to note that although Finland provides permanent housing to homeless individuals, those who receive assistance are expected to improve their lives by utilising the services provided by the government. Furthermore, they are treated like tenants, meaning they have to pay rent and other costs (if they have an income). Some social housing areas also enforce strict rules that prohibit the use of drugs and alcohol.

In 2008, there were roughly 8,000 homeless people in Finland. By 2023, this number had dropped to 3,429, representing an approximate 57% decrease over 15 years. Additionally, the long-term homeless population decreased by roughly 70% between 2008 and 2023 (Ara, 2024). This is not only an impressive achievement, but also solid proof that the approach effectively reduces homelessness in the long run.

Malaysian Context

Since the Housing First approach has been found highly successful in Finland, could the same approach work in Malaysia?

The homeless population in Malaysia has been poorly documented, as mentioned earlier. However, multiple studies have attempted to identify the factors leading to homelessness in various areas of Malaysia. Common themes include unemployment, low salaries, addiction (including alcohol, drugs, and gambling), criminal records, and family conflict (Alhabshi & Manan, 2012; Drani et al., 2020; Lee & Siew, 2023; Ramli & Dawood, 2019; Yani et al., 2016).

Upon closer examination, all the above factors can be interconnected. For example, a past criminal record can contribute to unemployment and family conflict, which are major factors leading to homelessness (Jasni et al., 2020).

Most importantly, although unemployment is one of the causes of homelessness, being homeless itself can be a significant barrier to finding employment due to the public stigma. This situation can invoke a sense of learned helplessness in homeless people, which might prompt them to stop seeking employment in the future (Jasni et al., 2021; Williams & Stickley, 2011).

Thus, a Housing First approach that focuses on putting people under the roof before attempting to address other problems they face could be a viable strategy for us to employ. However, this would only be more sustainable if our homeless population includes individuals who can still contribute to the workforce.

It is uncertain how many of our homeless population are elderly, but the 2022 report stated that at the time there were 1,300 to 1,500 homeless people in Kuala Lumpur, 40% of whom were 60 years old and above, with many having medical conditions that would severely impact their chances of employment.

Other than the age factor, the availability of housing units is also a major concern, as we are experiencing a severe shortage of affordable or low-cost housing nationwide.

The Housing First approach in Finland is not solely a government effort. Depending on municipality, the Finnish government collaborates with NGOs to acquire private residential units and transform them into social housing.

In addition, the capital of Finland, Helsinki, owns 70% of the land within the city limits and maintains a strict housing mix for new districts, allocating 25% of the units for social housing and 30% for subsidised purchasing units (The Guardian, 2019).

Adapting the Housing First Approach

If we aim to eradicate homelessness in Malaysia, radical changes will be necessary. While the Housing First approach could work wonders in Malaysia, we first need to ensure that all other elements align with the strategy to guarantee its effectiveness.

Firstly, we need to establish a definitive definition for the term “homeless people,” so that we can properly document them and provide help.

Accurately documenting the number of homeless people is challenging, but it needs to be done. This will allow us to understand the extent of the issue and the composition of the homeless population, whether it is due to aging or low salaries, so we can adapt accordingly.

Secondly, we need to ensure that we have enough housing units to accommodate the homeless population.

The Ministry of Housing and Local Government (KPKT) does offer different affordable housing schemes for the less fortunate, with the most notable one being the People’s Housing Project (PPR), which has a rent of RM124 per month. However, as mentioned before, availability is scarce, and these are best suited for homeless families or tenants under the Housing First programme who wish to transition into homeownership.

For individual homeless people, perhaps the Malaysian government can borrow an approach from the Finnish government and collaborate with different organisations to acquire overhang properties (residential or otherwise) and repurpose them to house homeless people. In addition, the current temporary homeless shelters could also be repurposed into proper living spaces for long-term housing.

The cost could be a concern for many people, as they may not want their tax money spent on homeless people whom they have discriminated against. Yet, reports have shown that this approach has saved the Finnish government approximately 15,000 Euros per homeless person which would otherwise be spent on their emergency healthcare or involvement in the criminal justice system (The Guardian, 2019).

Lastly, homeless senior citizens should not be housed under the same conditions as those who are capable of contributing to the workforce.

Although Malaysia has state-owned institutions to take care of elderly persons (Rumah Seri Kenangan, RSK), and the elderly who are rescued through the Destitute Persons Act 1977 will be ordered by the court to be admitted into RSK, the requirements can be unreasonable, which includes having no close relatives.

Having no close relatives as a requirement for RSK does not recognise the fact that a portion of homeless people may have family conflicts that prevent them from seeking help from their families (Drani et al., 2021). Thus, the requirements for RSK should be revised to ensure that elderly individuals who are abandoned by their families would be eligible for admission.

It is important to remember that the Housing First approach does not just stop at housing. It also encompasses rehabilitation, mental healthcare, and career development services. If the strategy is properly implemented, we should start to see fewer and fewer people living on the streets.

However, if we truly want to eradicate homelessness, sustainable city planning is a must. This includes building more affordable or low-cost housing to ensure people have a place to stay, regardless of their income.

Chia Chu Hang is a Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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