By streetworker Anne Kirkegaard and Bibi Agger, the professional leader and deputy manager of projekt UDENFOR
Homelessness is something complex, reaching far beyond not having a place to live. The young people, who the two feature writers of today have met, are typically fighting overlapping issues, including drug abuse, mental vulnerability and general mistrust of the outside world. This group of young people needs much more help.
WE EXPECTED that it would be difficult finding ”the invisible homeless”. However, we had not been on the streets for more than three months before we found to our cost that we were wrong.
The Adidas pants are too short and reveal that Lasse have bare feet in his trainers. He has a tight grip of the straps of his camouflage rucksack, strutting across Queen Louise’s Bridge in Copenhagen. – Lasse fits very well into the number of young men on their way to job, to school, to a café or the January sales. And that it is perhaps why no one notices that he takes a quick peek into the dustbins he passes. Lasse is not on his way to the January sales. Actually, he is going nowhere. He wears the Adidas pants, the bag and the trainers every single day and the stroll across the bridge is part of his permanent route of the streets of Copenhagen, waiting for it to get dark and for the night cafés to open so that he can get inside.
SFI’s current homeless counts show that the number of homeless youth has increased significantly the past years. According to the 2013 count, 1755 of the country’s homeless were between 18 and 29. Since announcing this, media, organisations and other actors in the area have told the story about “the invisible homeless”. The number of homeless youth increases, but they are not on the streets – where are they?
Are anybody actually looking for them?
The homeless organisation projekt UDENFOR has started to do so. Literally.
Some of the young people experiencing that their parents have slammed the front door, that it is a fight to get affordable housing and that their friends have run out of couches, you will find if you knock on the doors of the shelters and care homes of the country.
ONCE IN A WHILE YOU SEE YOUNG PEOPLE, who are so chaotic or isolated that they are forced to sleeping rough, more or less. These young people are a minority within the minority. However, if you spend enough time in the urban space during the hours of the day, the evening and the night, you will notice the young people, who are out there every day. Those, who do not go home when the shops close, those with worn out shoes. Those, who have to look in dustbins or collect bottles on their way through the streets. If you look closely, you can see that they wear the same clothes day after day and that they are dirty. You notice the young people sitting in libraries, stations and elsewhere where you do not have to buy a café latte to feel welcome. They are not waiting for anybody, sitting there. Mostly, they wait for the time to pass. Some are more extrovert, bumming cigarettes or coins and then there are those who avoid having eye contact or have empty eyes. Especially these young people, who wander the streets and have no place to go, are the people we have started working with, in the youth project of projekt UDENFOR. We seek them out where they are, in the urban space, and try to make contact. If, the first time, we do not succeed, we exercise patience and try one more time – and one more time, if need be.
Homelessness is something complex, reaching far beyond not having a place to live. The young people, we have met, are typically struggling with overlapping issues such as abuse, mental vulnerability and general distrust in the outside world. ACCORDING TO Dr. Med. Preben Brandt’s thesis “Younger Homeless in Copenhagen” of 1992, homeless youth have in all likelihood an upbringing of neglect and emotional destitution behind them. Not least fighting against a system, which is not able to contain them and they feel left to themselves, isolated, lonely. And invisible?
Loneliness and homelessness is not something, the young people flaunt, shout about or ask for help to cope with. On the contrary. The easiest is no doubt if they are difficult to handle or reject contact, to let them be. However, if we do not make contact and insists on it, who does? Are we to let them exist in social isolation and “invisibility”?
We believe that it is necessary going against the received opinion within social and health work that those who believe that they are in need, must report and ask for help themselves. Thus, also the perception that everybody has the necessary resources to, and interest in, making contact at their own initiative. When a vulnerable person is homeless and rejecting contact, that person needs an extra hand. We are working from the perception that all people are in need of contact. According to John Cacioppo, professor of psychology and neuroscience (2013), loneliness can be right out dangerous. Long-standing loneliness, can, if allowed, be a self-fulfilling circle of serious health and relational consequences. It has to be a common demand – an ethical requirement, even – not just to leave excluded young people to themselves. Otherwise, the process of exclusion is allowed to continue into adulthood. It cannot be enough just to avoid hurting someone.
ASK IS 18. When the street-based worker meets him for the first time, he is obviously influenced by hashish and not particularly talkative. He will, however, accept a sandwich. Ask’s nails are dirty, the street-based worker observes as they sit together and eat. Gradually, Ask tells us that he sleeps in a freight bicycle most of the time. After spending some afternoons with our street-based worker, our man asks Ask to accompany him to the council’s social centre to inquire about his possibilities. As No. 88 lights up in green, it is their turn. The woman behind the counter informs them as the first thing that they are busy and that it is her lunch break. She addressed the street-based worker and not Ask as she looks him up in the system. It turns out that Ask’s file is both long and complex. She obviously finds it immense. After some contemplation, she hands them a list of possibilities across the disk and says that Ask can see for himself whether there is room. She makes ready to service the next in line. Number 89. The same night Ask is back on the streets. Are the homeless youth truly invisible or is it the society, the system, the social centres that cannot or will not see them? Ask is not invisible. He might be ’maladjusted’, perhaps even ’immeasurable’; in any case in a system that will rather work in pre-defined solutions and efficient queuing systems. Nevertheless he is there, quite visible, in front of the counter and you can read his advanced story in black and white on the screen.
In our view, it is a social responsibility of a welfare society to meet young people as Lasse and Ask with more than a list. They obviously need more than this. Where is the dialogue, the time, the curiosity and the interest of the human being in question? People will be invisible, if they are not seen, won’t they? Next week will be the time of SFI’s fifth national homeless count. We can only hope that we will break the trend and in future, we will be seeing fewer young people moving into halfway houses at an early age or end up as the target group of projekt UDENFOR, on the streets as socially isolated rejecting contact. As the people we only see when we are looking for them.