Homeless migrants need help – not harassment and victimization

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During the spring of 2017, Project UDENFOR has noticed that an increasingly spiteful tone is being used towards migrants living in the streets of Copenhagen.

Abuse, jeers and threats have almost become everyday experiences.

Some citizens of Copenhagen feel uncomfortable having homeless people in their neighbourhoods and complain to Project UDENFOR that The Mobile Café serves warm meals to homeless people right where they themselves live. They ask us to move our meal provision to a different place because the homeless people are a nuisance and create unsafety among people in the neighbourhood.

Experiencing discomfort when we see something is only human. We are distressed by visually confronting something to which we are opposed, which we are offended by, or which we do not understand, and there may be many reasons for this.

It is, however, intriguing that we may hear of criminal acts whose consequences affect all of us, e.g. the billion-kroner fraud against the Danish Tax Authorities, but which we are not shocked by to the extent that we react. What we see affects us much more than what we hear or read about – even when it happens outside our own circles.

This particular discomfort and the opposition to changes in our neighbourhood are known as the NIMBY effect. The reaction ‘Not In My Back Yard’ is often seen when windmill parks, roads or social institutions for vulnerable citizens are established. The majority of local people are not opposed to development and change as such, as long as it happens outside their own territories.

The visible presence of homeless migrants in residential areas often activates the NIMBY effect, which may express itself in very many different reactions. Lately, Project UDENFOR has observed reactions which amount to abusive behavior, e.g. verbal abuse and physical threats towards homeless migrants, and sometimes attempts to chase them off the street.

Homeless people living in public space lead their lives there and must perform all the necessary and human activities in the streets which other people do in their homes, such as sleeping, eating, showering or going to the toilet. Nobody wants to live this way, but most homeless people have no other choice, or they are too ill to choose a life like ours.

In Denmark, it is neither illegal nor a criminal offence to be homeless. Or to be Swedish. Or to be homosexual. In our welfare society, we consider homelessness to be a social problem and homeless people to be fellow human beings in need of help, because they have ended up in a situation which they are unable to get out of without support. It is important that we have the same understanding for behavior which results from homelessness, e.g. sleeping, eating and relieving oneself in the street. Consequently, Project UDENFOR recommends that we strive to find solutions which can address homeless migrants’ need for shelter, food, sleep and toilets in the streets.

Unfortunately, our recommendations are not recent. For a number of years, Project UDENFOR has had a focus on the rapid growth in homeless migrant numbers, nationally as well as internationally. You can read more in our publications ‘Report on homeless migrants in Copenhagen’ (Part 1/Part 2) and ‘Need has no nationality’, both of which are from 2012.

Vulnerable and homeless migrants in city space need help, not harassment and victimization. If we choose the latter, we run a risk of contributing to the victimization and exclusion of fellow human beings, who are different from us. We should not run this risk, because the consequences may chip away at the proud humanist traditions upon which Danish society rests. The German sociologist Zygmunt Bauman expressed this aptly and precisely in his book ‘Work, consumerism and the new poor’, in which he formulated that when we deny the homeless access to the fulfilment of basic needs, we are on our way towards banishing them from the streets. If we succeed in doing so, we also condemn them from our human community.

Project UDENFOR does not deem it worthy of a welfare society to victimize and exclude the most vulnerable from city space. Let us meet them with understanding, inclusiveness and help.

Within Project UDENFOR, The Mobile Café has offered the most vulnerable citizen in the streets a warm meal for many years. Our experience is that a good and nourishing meal enjoyed in a community with others is a good and constructive point of departure for brief or extensive social support, which may assist the homeless person in achieving the good and worthy life which he wishes for.