When the street is your living room
In one of the world's best welfare societies, why are there still homeless people on the streets? The Copenhagen Post met with Henrik, Per and Little John to find out
Henrik ‘Popeye’ Jørgensen has been homeless for most of his life – the culmination of a former case-a-day beer habit, smoking cannabis and mental health issues. Some years ago, while Jørgensen was visiting Ungdomshuset in Nørrebro, a man on heroin smacked him over the head with a heavy frying pan. The injury hospitalised Jørgensen and threw his balance off kilter, rendering him unable to work.
Jørgensen, who proudly dons a tattoo of his cartoon namesake on his upper arm, is one of 5,290 registered homeless people in Denmark, according to a 2011 report by the National Centre for Social Research (SFI). Half of these people live in urban areas where the squeeze of the high costs of living can be overwhelming. Aside from financial limitations, many homeless people have minimal education, suffer from mental illness or other health problems, abuse drugs or alcohol, come from broken families or are otherwise ‘outside’ of society.
In addition to his balance issues, Jørgensen is plagued by the memory of one particularly terrible night. While he was squatting with a friend, the apartment’s rightful owners came home unexpectedly and a fight broke out in the bathroom. Jørgensen’s friend fell, hit his head on the toilet and died.
“There was blood everywhere, from one wall to another, and his head was nearly coming off his neck,” he said.
Hoping to part with his disturbing thoughts and the stress of not knowing where he will sleep each night, Jørgensen is planning a move to the countryside next year and has managed to save up 15,000 kroner.
Putting roofs over heads
Many homeless Danes have been given apartments as part of a government initiative that operates on the ‘Housing First’ principal, which follows the rationale that having a place to live provides the stability necessary for homeless people to address the root causes of their situation.
However, the policy doesn’t work for everyone. “If you are put in an apartment with bare walls, you feel isolated with no-one to talk to, and you go back onto the street,” said Poul Strove Nielsen, the editor of Hus Forbi, a street newspaper that depicts the stories of the homeless people who sell it and earns vendors 12 kroner for each issue sold. After living in an apartment in Nørrebro, Jørgensen, one of Hus Forbi’s registered 500 sellers, did exactly that.
For many of Denmark’s homeless, being surrounded by drug and alcohol users in shared accommodation makes it particularly difficult to break free from destructive lifestyle choices. “It creates an environment that makes people stuck in their situation,” said Lars Benjaminsen, an SFI researcher responsible for co-writing the 2011 report, ‘Homelessness in Denmark’.
Frede John Hansen, otherwise known as ‘Little John’, had a life-altering experience when he took 24 ecstasy pills and had to be resuscitated. “I had my mouth open like this,” he said, leaning back and opening his mouth widely, “and my friends just threw them in.”
After the scare, Hansen shied away from friends, fearing he would be led astray again.
But drugs and alcohol are not a problem for everyone. Annette Mainz, the manager of Herberget Lindevangen – a shelter catering for up to 26 homeless adults in Frederiksberg – said although the drug and alcohol users were usually more visible, people should avoid pigeonholing all homeless people as substance abusers. “It is common to think that when you’re homeless, you have to look a certain way and sit with a beer, but you can actually be homeless in another way, which is just as horrible,” she said.
Most of the dozen young people currently staying at Herberget Lindevangen grew up in institutional environments where they never learnt how to become adults, according to Mainz. “They don’t know how to cook, they don’t know how to look after their own money, they don’t know how to behave properly, or even to read.” Mainz has seen a certain dependency on government support develop among young people during the past 30 years. “It’s like people have an attitude where they think ‘the council has to help me somehow.’” Mainz, who has managed the shelter for eight years and has 25 years of social work experience, gets frustrated when she sees young people return there a second or third time. “It means they haven’t learnt anything!” she said. “I’m not thinking of miracles, I’m thinking of small steps, like being able to pay the rent every month.”
Hansen, for example, has learned to make good decisions with his money. Unable to read, Hansen gets by washing windows, selling Hus Forbi and living off his welfare payments. After his bills, he’s left with about 4,000 kroner per month and has recently learned how to live off that, a change he attributes to his coming of age. But these positive changes didn’t come easily.
One of Hansen’s wake-up calls came 10 years ago when he was drunk and slapped his landlord at a meeting. After a month in prison, Hansen decided he never wanted to go back, and spent four years working to pay off his debts. “Today, I always tell my friends that I feel like a man. I am a man,” he said while pulling his shirt down to reveal the hair on his chest. “When I was young, like everyone, I was a troublemaker and behaved kind of madly in public places and didn’t think about it. Now I can only really show I am a man by trying to behave myself.”
Hansen now lives in an apartment in Nordvest and has done so for five years, but still does not have any friends outside his homeless network. He likes the security of being among people with similar backgrounds to his own. The homeless people who frequent the Kirkens Korshær day shelter in Christianshavn similarly tell manager Ingrid Flye that they would be too lonely if they moved into an apartment. “So often they say, ‘I can’t do that because I’ll have nothing. I’ve been with these people for so many years – they’re my friends, they’re my family and I can’t live without them,’” Flye said.
Per Thormod Ernstsen, 53, has drifted in and out of homelessness for the past 12 years. As vice chairman and secretary of HOPE and the regional chairman of SAND – two organisations that represent homeless people in Europe and Denmark respectively – Ernsten is familiar with the reasons people become homeless.
For him, poor health is the cause. Ernstsen first suffered kidney failure in 1979 when he was bedridden with a temperature of 41 °C. A second failure followed in 2003 and led to him eating his Christmas duck in hospital. Ernstsen has tried to hold down a job but found most employers unsympathetic to his high number of unpredictable sick-days. Every month Ernstsen nets about 8,500 kroner in welfare due to his condition: “You can live on it, but it’s not much,” said Ernstsen.
“Getting a job at the moment is difficult enough, let alone when the jobseeker is inefficient,” said Jann Sjursen, chairman of the Rådet for Socialt Udsatte (Council of Socially Marginalised People). “The problem in Denmark and other European countries at the moment is there’s no work. And if you have health problems and you’re not very good at getting up in the mornings and you’re not stabilised, then it’s hard to get a job,” Sjursen said.
Another lifestyle choice?
Through his involvement with SAND and HOPE Ernstsen has gained some perspective. “I’ve seen how people all over Europe live and still the best conditions for homeless people are here in Denmark,” he said.
For some, having a place to live is simply not a priority. Many of the homeless people who visit Kirkens Korshær forgo paying rent so they can spend their money on other things, according to Flye.
“They don’t care about the future like we do. They say: ‘We have a party today and tomorrow I don’t know,’” she said. But Flye and her colleagues are not trying to change those who seek warmth and a day-old pastry each day. “They are created as they are and they are good enough,” she said.