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Luca Gentile carries all his possessions on a bike. He masquerades as a giant caterpillar in the woods.A blood-thirsty army is chasing a shirtless man, but he seems remarkably unfazed by the attack.

"Loads of mosquitoes," 32-old Luca Gentile remarks calmly, while stamping on twigs with his flip-flop clad feet and pushing tree branches aside.

We have arrived at our destination – Luca Gentile's home.

We are surrounded by trees and creepy-crawlies and not much else but this is where Luca lays his head down to sleep. There is no sofa where to urge guests to take a pew and no means of brewing a cup of coffee.

The theatre actor, who arrived in Finland a year ago, prefers to sleep in the woods rather than spend his money on a flat, saying that rental rates are extortionate in Finland.

"If you compare prices in Finland with other countries, rents are really high here."

Statistics bear witness to Gentile's observation as graphs depicting rental prices have been creeping up year after year.

According to data collected by Statistics Finland, rents in the Capital Region were four per cent higher this spring than at the same time last year.

In Helsinki, the average rental rate per square metre is not much short of 20 euros, while purchase prices are also through the roof.

At the same time, homelessness is becoming a bigger problem in Finland, with studies conducted by the Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland (ARA) revealing that there were roughly 8,000 homeless people in Finland last year, half of them in the Helsinki region.

Several reasons may be behind homelessness: shortage of affordable housing, unemployment, debts and poor credit records.

Everything in his rucksack

Gentile rummages around his rucksack where he stores most of his possessions: a compass, smartphone, air mattress, water bottle, four T-shirts, two pairs of socks, underwear and pyjamas.

A packet the size of a bag of flour reveals Gentile's bed, a sleeping bag.

He makes the bed, brushes bits of rubbish off his feet and climbs in, leaving only his eyes, nose and mouth visible through a little a hole at the top of the sleeping bag.

He got used to an ascetic lifestyle already as a little boy in Italy where this real-world Snufkin would set up his tent in his bedroom. Later on, he built a tree house in the garden of his family home, preferring to use an outdoor bio-toilet rather than traipse to the loo in the house when nature called.

Now Gentile showers once a week if he happens to find a suitable place among the couchsurfing community, which he usually does.

"People don't believe me when I say I'm sleeping rough. They offer help and say I can stay with them."

Once winter comes knocking on the door and the sleeping bag starts to feel cold, crashing on a sofa becomes a more tempting proposition.

"Sleeping in different places allows me to meet interesting people and learn about the local culture."

During the summer months, Gentile uses a map app on his mobile to pick a spot to set up home for the night. Selecting a region that looks green on the map, he heads that way and tries to find as remote a location in the woods as possible. Despite having to share his sleeping quarters with foxes and other small wildlife, he has never felt unsafe or scared.

"But mosquitoes are the worst thing. And once I was bitten by a tick, when it was too hot to sleep inside the sleeping bag."

This evening he has been invited to dinner in Otaniemi but is still uncertain where he will find himself bedding down for the night.

"I'll probably sleep in the woods."

Caravan life

Finnish pop wafts softly from under the canopy attached to the front of the caravan, signalling that the owner Mikko Lindroos, 55, is home.

When not on a work trip, he enjoys a relaxed caravan park lifestyle.

He drives a long-distance lorry for living and spins discs for dance hall competitions in his free time. Around seven years ago he started to wonder whether it really made sense to spend a sizeable chunk of his income on rent.

"It seemed ridiculous to fork out 600 euros in rent money every month," says Lindroos.

After totting up the figures, he took the leap and, giving up his flat in Leppävesi in Laukaa, bought a second-hand caravan, drove it to the Hietasaari camping site in Uurainen and moved in.

Hietasaari is the place where a tornado wreaked havoc four years ago, bringing down trees and smashing cars. Three people were also injured in the storm.

"Some people think I'm mad while others are suspicious. It's a common notion that you must be down on your luck if you don't live in an ordinary house or flat."

"People often think that I'm running away from something or that there are some serious complications in my life. Living like this is pretty unheard of in Finland," says Lindroos.

Now his living costs for the space totalling 15 square metres are less than 2,000 euros a year, translating into just over 160 euros per month.

Having spent much of his life in cramped spaces in the cabins of lorries and ships, he does not find the walls of his small living quarters closing in on him and has no regrets over giving up his old life in a terraced house. Compared with spaces he spends his time in during his work shifts, he has all the space he could wish for in the caravan.

"My son also said that compared with his bedsitter this seems spacious."

The tiny space manages to house a surprising amount of facilities: a bedroom with a double bed, living area complete with a sofa, shower and a toilet.

On a shelf in the cooking corner, jars of herbs and spice stand in a neat line, just like in any other kitchen.

"I get hot water in here, all the mod cons. But I don't use them that much as the camping site has all the services. The nearest toilet, an old outdoor loo, is just around the corner. I use the gas cooker in the caravan and the grill in summer," Lindroos explains.

Thanks to air conditioning, the caravan remains cool even during a heat wave, while in winter, gas and electric heating keep Lindroos warm as toast. The usual winter bugbear, snow clearing, is not a problem either as the camping site's staff keep paths in the area clear of snow, whatever the weather.

Weather conditions allowing, the living space expands outdoors as from early spring until late into autumn, Lindroos likes to spend time under the canopy, reading Donald Duck comics and listening to Finnish pop. During the daytime, he meets other residents by the camping site's kiosk to put the world to rights and on Saturday evenings, karaoke provides the entertainment. He also has the company of another permanent resident who has a caravan in the area.

"This is my social life."

Home and garden for less

The 1,200-square-metre garden boasts an apple tree, strawberry bed, bunch of rhubarb, along with raspberry, gooseberry and currant bushes.

Welcome to our home, says Mari Lindeman, 33, who lives in Lahti with her husband, Heikki Norola, 33.

Six months ago, the couple waved goodbye to their old home in a block of flats and bought a 200-square-metre house on its own plot, paying just over 200,000 euros for it.

"I can't imagine buying a place in the Capital Region," says Lindeman, offering home-baked rhubarb pie.

What is wrong with Helsinki?

"For that price, we'd get a studio flat in Central Helsinki. Now we have a detached house."

"With our income, we couldn't even dream of anything like this in the Capital Region. Some friends are building a house there, and just the plot set them back 100,000 euros."

And having a garden is not something they are prepared to negotiate on as it is important for their four-year-old dog, Martta, which has been through tough times, having been homeless for some time and worked as a guard dog at a construction site in Vyborg. The couple also like the large garage, which can easily house two cars, with space for three more sets of wheels on the drive in front of the house.

"In Helsinki, even a parking space comes with a ridiculous price tag. If you lived there, you couldn't even afford to have a car," says Lindeman who works in a kitchen shop in Helsinki.

Lindeman, however, travels to work by train. The regular Z train passenger, who has commuted to Helsinki for seven years now, clocking up around 200 rail kilometres every day, does not complain as she has become a member of a train gang.

"It's a bunch of people I've got to know on the train. Six years ago, I sat on the same seat for a whole week and realised that the same people occupied the seats around me every day."

These travel companions include Pekka and Timo.

"One of them runs a pawn shop while the other fixes wind instruments. We got talking when they asked me for help with a crossword clue. After that, I've also got to know women from Mäntsälä and Orimattila."

There are times when Lindeman finds the commute almost therapeutic. Pekka has even given her some paternal advice on wedding arrangements. "He's the same age as my dad and his daughter got married a couple of years ago."

The train travels costs "an arm and a leg", up to 5,000 euros a year, but Lindeman has not calculated how many trips she has to do before reaching the point where it would be cheaper to get a removal van and move to the capital. She has no interest in finding out.

"I don't want to compromise on the quality of the house at the cost of the location. Why would I want to live in a small house? A friend of mine lived in Vantaa and it took her an hour to get to work in Helsinki centre. It doesn't take me any longer to travel from Lahti."

Looking for a place of his own

His own home. That is what Juma Fungo, 23, dreams of. The young Ugandan is one of the homeless of Helsinki.

Able to stay in his sister's two-bedroom flat, which she shares with her child and friend, he at least has a roof over his head. The rent on the flat amounts to 1,200 euros a month.

Previously, he crashed on a sofa at a friend's place but it was an untenable arrangement.

"A lot of his friends came by and I couldn't ask them to leave even when I wanted to sleep as it wasn't my home."

Apart from his living arrangements, Fungo's life seems ordinary: he has friends, works in a supermarket and is into music.

But he also has poor credit record, which makes finding a flat difficult in the Capital Region where landlords hold all the cards in the rental market.

In the Capital Region, there are around 15,000 people urgently looking for a rental flat, says Timo Metsola, the managing director of Vuokraturva, a company offering rental property services.

The majority of flat-hunters are after a one-bedroom place, but there are also roughly 20,000 applicants in the queue looking to swop flats. Only around five per cent of applicants get lucky and find a council flat in Helsinki.

Fungo is not alone as there are around 2,000 young homeless people in Finland. Immigrants are also a growing group among the homeless, with around 2,000 immigrants finding themselves without a permanent home last year.

Fungo says that finding a place of his own is proving more difficult than getting work. There have been times when he has applied for around a dozen flats a day, sending emails and making phone calls.

"I've never met any of the landlords face to face. I've never been invited to a viewing. It feels like I'm not trusted, or given a chance. There's no getting away from the burden of the past. It'll follow me for the rest of my life," says Fungo.

The high number of applicants coupled with a shortage of flats means that people with poor credit record come bottom of the pile when landlords select a tenant.

"But I'll manage somehow, that's what I've always done. It's tougher for those who don't have anywhere to go."

Sami Takala – HS
Niina Woolley – HT
© HELSINGIN SANOMAT
Image: Ville Männikkö

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