A cold shoulder to those in need

I work at a little café in Nørrebro. It’s a place where everyone is welcome: thick and thin, tall and short. Nursing mums and old men in need of dentures. People with grand ideas and those with more down-to-earth concerns. The broken-hearted and the happy-go-lucky. It’s a place with a heart of gold. During a recent staff meeting I come to the conclusion that hearts of gold are easily broken. Broken by a society’s failure to do something about a growing poverty problem that stares us in the face each and every day.

It all started two years ago. A beggar came into the café to use the loo. It was bitterly cold outside. Not much different than it is right now.

I’d seen the somewhat dishevelled man on the street a number of times and thought that a cup of coffee and a warm place to drink it might be his only chance to get off the street that day. God only knows how people like that make it through a winter’s day. Let alone a winter’s night. Before I knew it, I was serving coffee to him and his family on a regular basis. They’d come from Romania to make a better life for themselves.

Turns out that I wasn’t the only one offering them a cup of coffee. Everyone else who worked there was doing the same; what good is the idealism of the welfare state, which should be taking care of the poor, when the poor stand before you, with blue lips, no winter clothing and without a warm bed to go home to?

If not us, then who?
Reality sucks sometimes. Sometimes it sucks so bad it makes you cry. Because it seemed that my good-hearted co-workers and I had got ourselves into something of a bind that we couldn’t really see any solution to.

The problem is that word of our generosity spread. So much so that we had to start charging a token fee for the coffee. Still, the number of down-and-out types coming in continues to grow, and our café has turned into something of a homeless shelter. We’re a business. We can’t survive by being a shelter. Without paying customers we’ll have to close.

But if that happens, then we’d have nothing to offer anyone. What’s worse for us though is that becoming a shelter has brought with it problems that, while not the same as homelessness, are its faithful companions: shouting, pushiness, threatening behaviour and alcoholism. These are problems we can’t deal with and which often leave us feeling unsafe.

Why did our staff meeting turn teary? We could just have decided to ban them from coming in and hope that the good old days would return. As a situation that was simpler. Better.

We cried because we had to make a decision: keep letting them pay a token price – but for a to-go cup that couldn’t be consumed on the premises – or charge full price again.

Our choice was between offering them charity, yet openly discriminating against them, or treating them equally, with the implicit discrimination that entailed. Deciding for the latter would, in all likelihood, mean that we never saw any of the homeless again, never knew whether they were getting something to keep them warm. It was a heartbreaking choice because no matter what decision we made, we had to accept that we could not help. We had to turn people away – back to the cold street.

Lack of political interest
You can accuse us of putting ourselves in our bind. That’s partly right. We could have just turned the man away the first time he came in. The problem still would have been there though. And we’d have been the worse off for it. We could have just done what everyone else does – in Denmark, in Europe – and accepted that our society places no sort of priority on the growing problem of poverty.  Instead, we choose to ignore the poor or make them responsible for their own situation. It’s their fault that they have to stand out in the cold, even as their numbers seem to grow each winter.

What I realised during our meeting was that our little café is trying to solve one of our society’s evils. But we need help. We’re not capable of eliminating poverty. The problem is too big for us alone.

I found myself wondering why the candidates standing in last month’s council election never touched on the problem of poverty. I asked myself why there were no Danish or EU legislators who pay attention to poverty or propose ways to eliminate it.

How do we react to poverty? I don’t mean this in the sense of whether we should be charitable, or welcome or reject someone. I mean, how can we help people out of poverty?

We meet the poor every day: on our way to work. On our way home. And sometimes even at a café. I wish that someone would start fighting for a Denmark and a Europe free of poverty and long nights on cold streets. First and foremost, though (and even though it doesn’t eliminate poverty in the long-term) I wish that the City Council would admit that we have a problem and make sure that there are places where people can go to get a warm cup of coffee and a place to lay their head for the night. Even if they don’t have a CPR number.

The author studies educational sociology at the University of Aarhus