For a country admired globally for its generous welfare state, Denmark’s homelessness problem is a stain on this reputation. In 2015 there were 6,138 homeless according to The Danish National Centre for Social Research (SFI), a 23 percent increase compared to 2009.
It’s especially young people who are at risk of falling into homelessness. In 2015 there were 1,971 homeless aged 18 to 29 – a 76 percent increase in six years.
But while the Denmark’s homeless population grows, the number of shelters hasn’t kept pace. In 2013 there were only 2,180 places available – enough for just over 35 percent.
With nowhere else to go, many homeless choose to pass the night in Copenhagen’s train stations. But this is no longer an option after state-owned rail service DSB hired a private security company to keep the homeless out.
“We have been getting calls from people who feel unsafe at our train stations, and who don’t feel they can allow their children to travel alone,” says DSB’s Head of Business Development Aske Wieth-Knudsen.
She adds that while they have rarely had to involve the police in conflicts between the homeless and rail passengers, she argues that it is not in DSB’s mandate to take care of Denmark’s homeless.
“It is not our responsibility to create a place for the homeless, we are a train service. People should not sleep in the stations, that is not what they are there for and it creates an unsafe environment for our customers.”
A hub for homeless
The move has proven problematic for social services in Copenhagen, however, as train stations function as a gathering place for the homeless.
Peter Ellermann, head of the municipality’s homeless contact project (støttekontaktpersonordning for hjemløse) says moving the homeless on from stations will therefore make it harder for social services to make contact with them.
“It has had an impact on our work, definitely. The train stations attract the mentally- ill and homeless, so we have been able to keep tabs on them there. This move has made it more difficult for us to find them,” says Ellermann, adding that DSB’s guards have been instructed to contact his offices should they encounter a vulnerable or homeless individual.
“They didn’t used to do that, so this is an improvement. Their employees didn’t know how to deal with the people they encountered, but now they direct the social work part to us,” he said.
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Out of sight
DSB’s move demonstrates that they fail to understand the plight of the homeless, argues the Danish National Organisation for Homeless People, SAND.
“We think this move is really terrible,” says spokesperson Sofie Bay-Petersen.
“It is well know that the most vulnerable homeless, such as the mentally ill, seek out train stations. Nobody chooses to stay there for fun – it is not fun to be homeless – and the fact that they have decided to do this in the middle of winter just makes the situation even worse.”
She adds that DSB, being a state owned company, ought to take responsibility and try and find a more accommodating solution.
“The state owned train services in Norway have tackled the issue by creating heated rooms where the homeless can stay. Their employees can thereby direct the homeless to a place where they can stay. DSB, which is also owned by the state has, however, not taken any responsibility.”
Bay-Petersen points out that DSB did implement a strategy a few years ago, before quickly backtracking. She now calls for the train provider to resume its dialog with homeless advocates
“We can all agree that people shouldn’t live in train stations, but what DSB is doing is just moving the problem somewhere else. It is highly unreasonable that DSB is throwing people into the street.”
The homeless situation has changed radically in recent years. While homelessness rises in Denmark, it has also become an increasingly popular destination for foreign homeless. They are even more vulnerable, however, as they are unable to make use of publicly-funded shelters.
Most worryingly for Bay-Petersen, however, is the symbolic value of DSB’s move.
“We have seen a general trend in society, in which we try to push the homeless problem out of sight and out of mind. The number of homeless has exploded in recent years and I can understand that we get worried because we don’t want these problems to exist. We as a society are becoming increasingly asocial and that is very worrying, to say the least.” M