Finding Humanity in Stockholm
by ELIN DUTHU &
In a Stockholm park, a chilly wind swept through the square. The 12 ℃ made it a bearable – even comfortable – day to be outside. But this is not always the case for the estimated 34,000 people affected by a lack secure housing in Sweden. About 10% of these live in acute homelessness and are mostly men and foreign-born. Sweden’s criteria to define homelessness is contentious, though the state argues that no absolute poverty exists in the country. However, what is certain is that increasing house prices and a diminishing supply of housing in the cities are quickly pushing the most vulnerable in society out onto the streets.
* * *
Anders is 57 years old. He is full of life and has enough stories to fill a book. He laughs as he proudly tells me about the time he bought a bus and travelled through Europe with his two sons in 2000; they spent three months on the road with nothing but time on their hands. How many people can say that they camped out under the Eiffel Tower with their father at ages eight and ten? I know I can’t. He owned a company for 13 years, and spent four years living and working in Spain, where he even picked up the language. Anders is like any proud father of his age, except he isn’t. Anders is currently homeless and has been down on his luck for a few years.
I asked him how he got here, and like most men who surrounded us in a park opposite “Medis” (shorthand for Stockholm’s infamous Medborgarplatsen), it started with divorce. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, he quickly fell into depression after moving out of his shared home, and into his own apartment. Unable to drag himself out of his dire situation, Anders eventually lost his job and shortly thereafter, his accommodation.
As I sat there looking at a man who radiated humility, I quickly came to realize how precarious life is, and that this man represents a powerful truth. Anders story highlighted just how easy it is to fall into homelessness, even when it seems that the life you lead is miles away from that reality. He called the threshold hårfin, which literally translates to fine as hair. Having led a comfortable life, even a successful one at that, some bad luck led him to these stairs where we sat enjoying each other’s company. Our conversation highlighted how dependent the people living on Stockholm’s streets are on other’s kindness and generosity.
Efforts to help the homeless in Stockholm are mostly driven by organizations and private individuals. I had the opportunity to witness the cooperative work of Gatans Vänner and Stockholms Eldsjälar, who gather every second Sunday outside Medis to provide the homeless with clean clothes, food, hot beverages, hygiene products, and the opportunity to get a haircut and a shave; but most of all, they offer love and help. The women behind these organizations, Nettan and Katja, are vibrant and endearing. They both have experience working with sufferers of drug abuse and homelessness, and make a sincere effort to change people’s fortunes – an act of generosity they don’t see coming from a relatively passive state.
Katja, has herself been on and off the streets since her teens. She was recently given an apartment for her and her family, and has been clean for 18 months. Her hard work for the homeless began shortly after her grandfather, who had also been homeless, passed away; this triggered a desire to help the homeless of Stockholm. Katja is proud of her work, but especially of her six-year-old daughter, whom she is teaching to respect all humans alike. Her daughter is the youngest one on the premises, but that doesn’t stop her from engaging and helping.
In the park, I also met with Andreas Hedström, a former drug and alcohol abuser with a history of living on the streets. Today, he is there representing a more official channel with the aim of helping the homeless and addicts by providing advocacy. He is proud of the work he does with Stockholm’s Brukarförening, an organization dedicated to drug users. Mostly, he is excited about the changes he sees happening in an ever more progressive Stockholm.
The gatherings at Medis bring a broad range of Volunteers who help for varying reasons. Volunteers like Lucaz Enigma, a local hairstylist, take time to groom people like Anders. In doing so, he brings a little humanity to humans that have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Lucaz and Andreas are stood under a tree at the foot of some stairs (which are also used as public urinals), discussing ways in which they can cooperate at the next meeting. Andreas mentions that funds are increasing at the NGO where he works, and says he can contribute to organizing a generator to provide power for several hairstylists, like Lucaz, to come along next time
Daniel came up to me after his haircut and asked me if I would be willing to ask him a few questions. He didn’t want to share much with me except for one detail: “Look around you” he said, “We aren’t all drug and alcohol abusers. Most of us aren’t at all, as a matter a fact. The only reason I am standing here with you today is because I am sick. I would love to work, but I can’t, and if I did, I would die within a few days.”
Daniel has lived in Sweden for 30 years, but originally emigrated from Switzerland. He was a teacher in his former life, but went into early retirement as a consequence of ill-health. He draws attention to the country’s reluctance to provide adequate social assistance. Though he would love to work, he is unable to, and the welfare he receives does not cover his living expenses and accommodation. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many of the individuals that find themselves homeless in Stockholm.
* * *
The people were generous and humble. They were excited to share their stories and illuminate the cracks in the so-called system. Internationally, Sweden’s welfare state has a positive reputation that many countries strive to achieve. In reality, what Stockholm’s tourist guides don’t tell you, is that a part of our population has been left behind by a failed housing policy. A group who are often derogatorily referred to as the city’s A-lagare (the “A-team”, a slur to the ‘alcoholics’ living on the streets), but who are so much more than the sum of their misfortunes.