When Fred walks into the winter shelter in The Hague in the autumn of 2021, he realizes that his 40-year career as a nurse started exactly in that building: the place where he did his first internship in his twenties. He finds it “disgusting and terrible” that he walks back in there now, not as a nurse, but as a homeless man.
His partner died unexpectedly in his sleep five years earlier. Fred (72, for privacy reasons his last name is not mentioned) is devastated. He can’t imagine ever allowing another person into his life. Yet after two years he meets a new partner, who soon takes care of his administration. Fred doesn’t think much about that, after all, his deceased partner did too.
One day the bailiff shows up on the doorstep. “Can I have your keys?” Fred has to leave his house immediately, he would have built up rent arrears for months. He himself says that he has “never seen a letter”. Not surprising, his mail has been opened by his new partner for ages. It would have taken advantage of Fred’s finances.
He ends up on the street with his cat. He decides not to inform his family – two brothers and a sister. Instead, he reports to the homeless counter of the municipality of The Hague, but that states that he is not eligible for shelter because he has ‘a network’: his family members. “But they have no space,” he says. He just wants a place to stay overnight. Is that so much to ask?
Fred is not homeless, according to the municipality. Yet he sleeps for months on a bench in the open air. His cat has been staying at the animal shelter ever since. When he becomes unwell for the second time – he has a bypass in his thigh and is a diabetic – he finds out that his family has reported him missing. “Missing? I’m here, aren’t I?” he jokes when he sees his brother again.
32,000 Dutch people are now estimated to be homeless, according to the latest figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). In 2018 this was still 39,000. So is this a decline in homelessness rates?
There is no question, say Valente and the Street Consulate, among others, organizations that represent the interests of homeless people. According to them, CBS uses a wrong definition of homelessness. For example, homeless minors and people over 65 are not included. This also applies to women in women’s shelters, undocumented migrants and European migrant workers. Experts therefore state that many hidden homeless people are walking around in the Netherlands, the average estimate is 100,000. Fred is one of them – after all, he falls outside the CBS definition.
CBS recognizes that “there are a lot of people who you could consider homeless, but who in our definition are not.” The agency only counts 18 to 65-year-olds who sleep in the open air, stay in social shelters and people who sleep on the couch with friends and family on a non-structural basis. Although CBS would like to investigate this hidden group, there is simply no budget for it. Due to budget cuts by the Rutte II and III cabinets, many statistical studies have been ‘unfortunately stopped’.
The cliché image of a homeless person looks like this: an old man with a dirty beard lying on a park bench with a can of beer. This had to be done by politicians and ‘society’ from the streets, says Jan de Vries, an expert in the field of housing right, so that from 2006 the Dutch homeless approach was ‘purely and only’ aimed at homeless people with addictions and psychiatric disorders. Those who slept outside had to come in – for safety. This is how the ‘well-structured and very professional’ care and reception system was created, according to De Vries.
But the second aspect of this approach, realizing sustainable housing solutions, has “failed badly”. The urgency for structural housing disappeared because the stereotypical homeless person had already largely disappeared from the streets, he says. De Vries states that the problem has not disappeared and believes that it is “high time” to solve and prevent it.
To start with, he believes that Dutch policymakers would do well to the definition of Feantsa, the European umbrella organization of national reception federations. This makes clear when there is no question of homelessness. A person must have an “adequate home or space” over which he and his family “exercise exclusive property” and “have the opportunity for privacy and social relationships.” If that is not the case, then there is homelessness, according to Feantsa. The European Commission has adopted this definition largely embraced and asks Member States to do the same when defining and counting homelessness.
What is striking about the European description is that homelessness is approached as a housing problem. In the Netherlands it is seen as a care problem, says urban geographer Cody Hochstenbach of the University of Amsterdam. For example, the Ministry of Health is responsible for arranging social care. The Social Support Act, which regulates reception by municipalities, focuses on ‘self-reliance’. The fuller the shelter, the stricter the self-reliance of a homeless person will be. “We disrespectfully say that you have to be completely insane” to be eligible for municipal shelter and guidance, says De Vries. “But the shelter is in fact not intended for those cases.”
Homelessness is the most extreme violation of the right to housing, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Housing says in his reports. The Netherlands is facing a housing crisis – at the same time, Minister Hugo de Jonge (Public Housing, CDA) has stated that his goal is to realize the right to housing. “If the minister wants to realize the right to decent housing, then you have to tackle the most extreme violation of that right first, that is the priority,” advises housing expert De Vries. “Combating and preventing homelessness must become part of housing policy.”
When Fred reappeared on his relatives’ radar, one of his brothers took him to the homeless counter. It was there that they first heard of the existence of a day care facility, which is where Fred went. In the night he and his fellow sufferers were put outside again. Fred looked for the bench where he had been sitting for the first months of his homelessness.
Partly due to “passionate pleading” by the Street Consulate, the Hague city council approved the arrival of a winter shelter last autumn, says director Marlies Filbri. The winter shelter does not impose any conditions, does not investigate whether a homeless person is sufficiently self-reliant. So Fred could go there. When the winter shelter closed with the break of spring, he was offered to go to the Salvation Army’s 24-hour shelter. “I didn’t want to go there, because then I had to get used to all the people again. I didn’t feel like it,” says Fred. But he thought to himself: “I can say no, but then I’ll be outside again.”
It’s nice for him that he can stay in the shelter as long as necessary, but that’s about it. It is by no means a home. “A lot of things are not allowed,” he says. “No guests, no alcohol or cigarettes in the room.” Fred, who has recently been walking with a walker due to a balance disorder, sighs: “A home of his own, if that were possible…”
“Moving on to your own home hardly exists here,” says Jeroen Melchior. As a field worker at the Street Consulate, he conducts interviews with homeless people. According to him, people sometimes spend years in 24-hour shelters, the main cause being the lack of available housing. “A stay in the shelter for years does no one any good,” responds Filbri. As far as she’s concerned, the focus is on a home first, followed by solving other problems. “It works in Finland.”
There it applies housing firstprinciple in tackling homelessness. Policy makers believe the first aid measure for homeless people is to provide a home. It is the only European country where the homelessness rate has fallen in recent years, Hochstenbach said.
Quarter of a million social rental homes
In June, State Secretary Maarten van Ooijen (Public Health, ChristenUnie) and Minister De Jonge a similar approach. A break in style, according to the ministries. A month earlier, De Jonge came up with the plan to a quarter of a million social rental homes to build for low-income people, ‘including focus groups such as homeless people’.
Hochstenbach says there are “many caveats” to the plan. For example, the ‘net addition’ of social rental housing would be considerably lower due to the planned sale and demolition of the current housing stock. At the bottom of the line, according to him, there will not be 250,000 social rental homes, but 100,000.
Another problem, he says, is that the destination of these types of homes will often be “undeveloped land somewhere in the back.” It is precisely marginalized groups such as homeless people that you should place ‘as much as possible in fully-fledged neighbourhoods’, according to Hochstenbach.
Filbri is also critical of the plan. “How can you make new policy if you don’t know what it’s about?” she wonders aloud.
New counting method in Belgium
In Belgium, Professor Koen Hermans, sociologist at the Catholic University of Leuven, has devised a counting method that does justice to the European definition of homelessness. His team works with municipalities and tries to find as many authorities, organizations and individuals as possible that have contact with people who are homeless according to the definition of the European Commission. All those people fill in questionnaires and based on that an overview is made. “These numbers are greater than ever estimated,” says De Vries.
According to him, Belgian municipalities that embrace this counting method will gain “complete insight” into who the hidden homeless people are, where they are, whether their situation could have been prevented and how it should be solved. “Critical Policy Information.” With funding from the Kansfonds, he and the Hogeschool Utrecht will start a similar project in two Dutch municipalities after the summer – which he does not want to say yet. Filbri says that the municipality of The Hague is interested in the new counting method. Whether such a counting method solves much for Fred is the question. He is still waiting for a home of his own, with or without a little help at home. The first thing he has to do is get his cat out of the boarding house, although he doesn’t want to think about the bill that will be presented to him.
#Sleeping #bench #homeless