Down-and-out immigrants a dilemma for shelters

Non-Danes have few options if they find themselves on the streets. Advocates want that to change, but even they admit that lending a helping hand might only make the situation worse

As summer draws to an end, homeless shelters are preparing to make sure they can care for the homeless during the cold winter ahead. 

But as they prepare, a number of groups – including the Salvation Army – are also worried about laws that prevent them from providing care to homeless immigrants from other EU countries.

Current law prevents state funds from being used on programmes that help people without a Danish social security number. This means that shelters and other homeless advocacy groups that receive state funding are unable to offer shelter or carry out social work for the approximately 200 homeless foreigners living in Copenhagen.

Gitte Frydensbjerg, the head of Missionen Blandt Hjemløse, one of the organisations calling for a change, said the number of such individuals – predominantly from eastern European countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Lithuania – is growing and that their situations are often compounded by serious mental illnesses and addictions.

“These people have hopes of a better life, but when they end up on the streets, we can only stand by as we watch them deteriorate physically and mentally,” Frydensbjerg said. “They are not able to help themselves in any way. We want to help, but we are not in a position to do so.”

Frydensbjerg is keen to point out that her organisation works well with national and local authorities on initiatives to help Danish homeless. When it comes to homeless non-Danes, she understands the issue quickly becomes political.

“We are well aware that this is a complex situation. Of course, we cannot just send out the signal that Denmark is a honey pot of social benefits,” she said.

Ethical dilemma
Freedom of movement regulations allow these Europeans to come to Denmark legally, but as soon as they lose their job, or if they can’t support themselves, they lose access to social benefits, their residence becomes illegal and they become unwelcome at shelters.

Most of the time, the shelters aren’t even allowed to let them stay the night.

Bibi Agger is the deputy manager of Projekt Udenfor, another of the groups seeking to change the current law. Her organisation works with the most vulnerable homeless – a group she says includes 20 percent foreigners. 

“We find ourselves in an ethical dilemma. What we see on the streets is an unsustainable and undignified situation that calls for political action,” she said. “We have to work to improve living conditions for homeless migrants in Denmark. Anything else would be shameful.”

Emergency funds
Lars Benjaminsen, a researcher with social welfare research institute SFI, has carried out studies on homelessness on behalf of the Social Affairs Ministry.

“The problem with the homeless immigrants is something we’re going to have to live with as long as there is such a great divide between the standard of living and social conditions among EU countries,” he said.  

He said the outlook for marginalised immigrants is bleak, but didn’t expect lawmakers to react to the organisations’ calls to address the situation.

“I don’t think they are interested in doing more for this group of immigrants. The dilemma is that if you help people who are here illegally, then you will attract more illegal immigrants. But I do sense that they understand the need for emergency help, as we’ve seen with the state funding of emergency shelters during winter.” 

Emergency funds are distributed to homeless shelters to help them care for homeless immigrants from December to March, but the amount varies from year to year, as does the release date.

Frydensbjerg’s organisation housed homeless immigrants last year at Bavnehøj Church in Sydhavnen, but said the money didn’t go far.

“The funds we received from the state last year only covered the expense for one night guard and basic sleeping pads for 30 people,” Frydensbjerg says. “We had to turn people away due to a lack of space.” 

The church was open from 11pm to 8am. The remaining hours of the day, the migrants roamed the streets.

In the spring of 2012, Agger and the heads of the six other organisations met with the former social affairs minister, Karen Hækkerup (Socialdemokraterne), as well as other MPs and MEPs in order to convince them of the need to come up with a long-term solution.

More than a year after those meetings, the organisations say nothing has happened.

Unable to offer foreign homeless people a place to live, organisations such as Projekt Udenfor give assistance out on the streets (Photo: Sol Marinozzi Bjørck)European or national strategy
The official line from the Social Affairs Ministry is that foreign homelessness is an EU issue. 

“Foreign homeless people without legal residence is a challenge, and unfortunately there are no easy solutions,” the social affairs minister, Anette Vilhlemsen (Socialistisk Folkeparti), said. “I believe there is a need for long-term solutions for foreign homeless, but the solutions are to be found at a European level.”

Comments like that only fuel advocates’ concern that parliament is passing responsibility for the problem on to the EU so it doesn’t have to deal with it, but Benjaminsen says the issue is actually best solved in Brussels. 

“This is a trans-national problem and not something that each country should solve,” he said. “We need a more comprehensive policy at the EU level to tackle the new poverty migration.”

The organisations calling for change are: Missionen blandt Hjemløse, Kirkens Korshær, Frelsens Hær, Projekt Udenfor, Den sorte gryde, Mad til Hjemløse and Folkekirken Vesterbro.

  • How internationals can benefit from joining trade unions

    How internationals can benefit from joining trade unions

    Being part of a trade union is a long-established norm for Danes. But many internationals do not join unions – instead enduring workers’ rights violations. Find out how joining a union could benefit you, and how to go about it.

  • Internationals in Denmark rarely join a trade union

    Internationals in Denmark rarely join a trade union

    Internationals are overrepresented in the lowest-paid fields of agriculture, transport, cleaning, hotels and restaurants, and construction – industries that classically lack collective agreements. A new analysis from the Workers’ Union’s Business Council suggests that internationals rarely join trade unions – but if they did, it would generate better industry standards.

  • Novo Nordisk overtakes LEGO as the most desirable future workplace amongst university students

    Novo Nordisk overtakes LEGO as the most desirable future workplace amongst university students

    The numbers are especially striking amongst the 3,477 business and economics students polled, of whom 31 percent elected Novo Nordisk as their favorite, compared with 20 percent last year.