How people fall through the cracks in the Danish welfare system
Story and photos by Haseena Manek
Like other Nordic countries, Denmark is known globally for its comprehensive social services and a high ranking on the World Happiness Index. It may then come as a surprise that like other urban centres internationally, homelessness is an issue for Denmark’s big cities.
For example, if you are an unemployed citizen of Denmark, you are eligible to receive up to 90% of the income you made at your last job. Compare this to Canada, for example, where unemployment benefits start at 55% of your previous income with a cap at $49,500 CAD per year (approximately 250,500 DKK or 33,500 EUR). Despite this, homelessness remains an issue in larger cities like Copenhagen and Aarhus.
According to the last Danish national census, there are under 6000 people in Denmark that are considered homeless. According to the Danish National Organisation for Homeless People (SAND), the Danish homelessness advocacy group, the real number is roughly double that — around 10,000 to 12,000 people.
Twelve thousand people out of Denmark’s 5.6 million (2014) is about ) 0.2 percent of the population.
While every urban centre has its own challenges, understanding homelessness in welfare states provides insight that can be applied to different contexts around the world. If it’s not as simple as being financially secure enough to pay rent and maintain a home — because the state helps you with that — what then can we understand about root causes of homelessness?
“When you have a society built like this it should be a piece of cake to make room for everybody, refugees too,” says Chairman of the Aarhus chapter of SAND, who goes by the name Kaffa.
So what can the Danish example teach us about the root causes and proponents of homelessness?
For Kaffa, the real challenges of dealing with expectations from society to live independently — working or studying, and managing everyday things like rent, groceries and bills — started when he became a legal adult. “After 18 you have to start taking responsibility for yourself much more,” he says. Originally from Copenhagen, Kaffa moved to Aarhus at age 16 and has been homeless several different times in his life. “For myself, it was a difficult time of transition, growing up, starting to make food, starting to pay bills, starting everything. And if you don’t got it in your back pocket, you have to learn it. And if nobody taught you that, it’s a long way to go.”
And before age 18, the system doesn’t always recognize you. According to SAND, because homeless shelters can only accept people who are over the age of 18, and the Danish system gets its data on homelessness from the shelters, minors often don’t turn up in the statistics on homelessness.
The lack of youth shelters in Aarhus is another serious concern in Aarhus. In order to ensure adolescents who have left home or been thrown out of their homes can continue to maintain the stability necessary to develop the skills, experience and know-how to deal with the requirements of living as a legal adult, there needs to be a place for them to have their basic needs met.
Additionally, national censuses have changed the definition of ‘youth’ in Denmark to only include those up to the age of 24 instead of 29. Which means that the numbers on youth homelessness will appear to have dropped, but without any major changes on the streets.
Another issue impacting homelessness in Denmark is the lack of affordable housing. “You’ve got this bottleneck,” says Kaffa. According to Dansk Byggeri (the Danish Construction Association) in 2014, Aarhus and Copenhagen would need 130,000 new properties by 2020 to accommodate new residents.
The low rates of housing construction compared to the number of people who move to Denmark’s big cities each year is a major challenge. However, there are other factors at play as well.
For example, the Danish legal definition of a homeless person includes “one or more social problems — eg. abuse, mental illness, no networking,” according to SAND’s website. This distinction comes into play when accessing housing in Denmark, as “temporary accommodation provisions for vulnerable groups,” ie. shelters, are aimed at those also dealing with mental illness, addiction or disability according to Section 110 of the Social Services Act.
Mental health is often vaguely cited as a cause for homelessness, but it is actually a very complex issue with a number of dimensions that vary depending on the city in question.
“A lot of people have been on the streets for many years so they don’t know anything else,” reflects Kaffa. “Maybe they can’t live inside four walls, you know, and maybe they just need to feel the air on their skin all the time.”
Mental illness can also be a challenge to taking advantage of welfare options. Filling out forms, making and keeping appointments and following through on bureaucratic processes can seem like insurmountable tasks to someone living with feelings of isolation coupled with mental illness.
The existence of a comprehensive welfare system does not guarantee success or security for any citizen, even those without some of the above-mentioned barriers.
This is where organizations like SAND play a vital role. “We actually go with people to the government, to the doctor, to the hospital, try to nurse them a little, so the first times maybe you need help to go, after four or five times you can go by yourself,” explains Kaffa about some of the work by SAND members. The idea is to make sure “people lost in society are being treated right.”
SAND plays an important role in the evolving advocacy for homeless people in Denmark. However, recent legislative changes present increasing obstacles for their work.
Last year, the Danish government announced a new welfare cap on unemployment benefits, child benefits, housing benefits and childcare subsidies. When Venstre, Denmark’s current governing political party, announced the reform plan in 2013, it was positioned as an incentive for people on welfare to get back to work.
Kaffa also calls for increased education and awareness building for the Danish public. Destigmatizing homelessness and some of the social issues that often intersect with it as well as the people affected by those issues is a necessary step. Breaking down the systemic and social elements of the marginalization of these groups serves as both a long-term formula for reducing homelessness and a short-term solution for those feeling isolated and abandoned by Danish society.
Kaffa was recently nominated the Chairman for Hus Forbi, a newspaper written by and sold by the homeless or those with so-called social problems all over Denmark. One of the benefits of Hus Forbi for the community is that it forces those selling to get out and interact with people for a few hours. “That’s so beautiful,” says Kaffa, “because normally people would never recognize you, never talk to you, never give you 20 kroner, never nothing with you — some people, anyway.”
As for readers of Hus Forbi, he says “it’s healthy for Denmark to read this paper, to get a little closer to real life.”