Henrik Max stands outside the Netto on Landemærket, just off the busy shopping street Købmagergade in Copenhagen city centre. His companion, a small mutt named Yogurt, skips happily around in the baking sun, greeting people as they enter and exit the supermarket.
“I usually stand by Studenterhuset down the street, but today I came too late, so the Politiken sellers were already there,” he says. “I have many regulars, and getting to meet so many wonderful people is the best thing about this job.”
He has grey hair, a warm smile and a soft voice – all assets that help in his line of work. Max is one of the thousands who sell Hus Forbi, the homeless newspaper. Modelled after the UK’s Big Issue, Hus Forbi recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary. Max started selling just months after the paper was founded and he admits his sales numbers have gone down a bit over the years.
“I don’t sell as many now, but in the past we would compete for who could sell the most, and then I used to sell between 80 and 100 a day. My record came at a homeless concert in Østerbro, where I sold 284 in two hours. But I’ve met many who have sold even more than that.”
A house for homeless
The Hus Forbi offices are in a back house beside a karate dojo, deep in the Nørrebro district. It’s a hub for the homeless, who stop by to pick up newspapers, have a chat, or grab a coffee from the café. There are public computers – one seller is playing solitaire when I visit – while the walls are plastered with pictures of sellers and ads for various activities such as the homeless choir.
We wait for Hus Forbi’s director, Rasmus Wexøe Kristensen, in the back yard where a group of sellers are debating the recent closure of Pusher Street in Christiania.
“This will just mean that it will spill into the streets,” says a woman with an oversized bong.
“It will be just like when they did it the last time. But it’s too bad about the space cakes, I can’t smoke hash, if I did my voice would just be croaky,” says another woman.
An older man calls us into Kristensen’s office, where nude portraits of prostitutes – part of the series Body of Desire by acclaimed Copenhagen photographer Helga Theilgaard – hang on the wall. Kristensen is in his mid-30s and, reflecting the atypical workplace, his office attire is a Christiania Sport’s Club jersey.
His passion for the wellbeing of the homeless stems from his own personal experience. As he explains, a person in his family has dealt with being socially vulnerable. Having previously worked at a homeless shelter in Holbæk for several years, he took the reigns at the paper five years ago, getting the job through a rather unusual path.
“Hus Forbi is run by a board, made up of the sellers, which has a general assembly each year,” he says. “Five years ago some of the board members frequented the shelter and they told me that Hus Forbi was looking for a new director, and they told me to apply.”
The paper is released once a month, and is dedicated to tackling issues related to homelessness. It’s also designed to be a source of income for sellers, who keep half of the 20 kroner each copy costs on the street.
A depressing anniversary
The paper has grown considerably since it was founded in 1996. Max has been with it since the beginning and can testify to the change.
“The paper has changed I think. It has become more professional,” he says. “There are also a lot more people selling now than in the beginning, back then we weren’t that many.”
In the early years, Hus Forbi was only sold in Copenhagen, but there are now 2,000 sellers around the country. The increase in sellers is a reflection of a dire reality, however.
“We like to call our anniversary the most depressing anniversary imaginable, because there is still a great need for us,” Kristensen says.
“It seems crazy to me to be cutting the taxes on the richest, when we have so many people without a home. And the number just keeps on rising and rising. Politicians are always asking, where should we use our resources, and I believe it’s better to use them for people in need, rather than people who have it all. But the reality is that a few are getting more, while so many are getting less.”
According to numbers from the The Danish National Centre for Social Research (Det Nationale Forskningscenter for Velfærd), the number of homeless in Denmark has risen 23 percent since 2009. The demographic that has seen the largest increase are young people aged between 18 and 24, which has doubled over the last seven years.
“It seems that every political decision made regarding homelessness has exacerbated the problem,” Kristensen says. “We are now starting to see people who have ended on the street due to the recent unemployment benefit reforms. A lot of people meet our sellers on the street and have a good relationship with them, in part because selling our paper fits into the narrative of working for your own money. However, these same people don’t necessarily bring that sympathy into the polling booth.”
Despite having helped put focus on issues dealing with homelessness over the past 20 years, it would seem little has changed.
“I guess you could say that we’ve failed,” Kristensen says jokingly. “I recently went through the first issue of Hus Forbi, and it covered the same things as we are now – increasing number of young homeless, not enough shelters, and so on. But then again we can always ask, how would things be if we hadn’t been around?”
The invisible man
Central to the paper’s mandate is to make homelessness visible to the rest of society, and show that behind statistics are people and stories –homelessness isn’t some far away reality, it exists all around us.
“I think Hus Forbi has been great for the homeless in Denmark, it has helped make us visible, that is not how it used to be,” says Max. “People didn’t know what it meant, or who we were. Through selling Hus Forbi we stop being just numbers and become faces, it makes it more personal.”
During its jubilee year, Hus Forbi has placed visibility at the centre of its celebration. At the beginning of the year it released the video ‘The invisible man’, a slick Hollywoodesque trailer for a mock superhero movie. “I used to be like you, but I became a shadow,” says the protagonist.
“The visibility and the communication between our sellers and the public is very important. Our job is to make people aware, and get them to take notice and talk,” says Kristensen.
Hus Forbi held a massive party in Odense for the anniversary celebration, where rock band DAD and rapper MC Einar performed and politicians gave speeches.
“[PM] Lars Løkke was booed,” Kristensen jokingly remarks.
Max was also there: “The party in Odense was great. I called my nephew who lives in Haderslev and he came down and we had a good time. But I missed Lars Løkke getting booed.”
As the paper celebrates its first twenty years, Kristensen is adamant that, while he’ll still be working with the homeless, he won’t be around for its forty-year anniversary.
Max, however, sees things differently.
“It’s difficult to say. But if I’m still alive, then I think I’ll still be selling Hus Forbi.” M