The outlaws’ attorney

When you're marginalised and disenfranchised, you need someone to help fight your corner : meet Copenhagen's street lawyers

The cold stings my hands as I approach the side entrance to Copenhagen Central Station. It’s known locally as the ‘Big Pharmacy’, and it’s where drug users and pushers have been bartering pills and prescriptions for decades.

On this cold winter day, however, the huddled group is gathered for another reason. Two well-dressed young people hand out coffee, cigarettes and cakes from a cargo bike to local homeless and drug users. These are no ordinary social workers – these are street lawyers.

“You have to meet Krøl, he is wonderful,” says Nanna Gotfredsen, referring to an elderly homeless man with a friendly, small black Labrador. Krøl seems to be in bad shape, and Gotfredsen tells me he was recently attacked on the streets.

“Here you go Krøl, this is your new computer,” she tells him as her co-worker Filip Soos swings a computer bag around Krøl’s shoulder. “We don’t really hand out computers every day, but Krøl is so wonderful, and he needs it.”

Gotfredsen has an easy-going charm that permeates everything she says. She is a co-founder of Gadejuristen, the street lawyers who give legal advice to the people that live outside of traditional society – the homeless, the streetwalkers and the drug users.

The early days
The initiative started in 1999, when Gotfredsen was a young law student. She was passionate about helping people, and realised that many were in need of legal assistance.

“I was volunteering in a church in Vesterbro that provides coffee and a warm place to people with difficulties. Many were burdened by legal issues that were actually quite easy to solve, so I started helping them out.”

Gadejuristen received no official support in its first four years, relying entirely on the dedication of its volunteers. But in 2003, the organisation was awarded financial support from the government, allowing them to hire staff and grow.

The lawyers of Gadejuristen were immediately welcomed by the people they set out to help. They ensured that people received the benefits they were entitled to, and they helped facilitate an improved relationship with the police.

Their success is in large part due to the fact that they conduct their work out in the streets, and don’t operate out of institutionalised buildings that can seem a million miles away from their clients’ familiar environment.

“We wanted everything to feel inviting, which is why we started bringing coffee and cakes along. But the main point was to meet people in their environment – where they are, where they live.”

The legal and support environment for the socially marginalised was very different in the early days of Gadejuristen. The needle exchange was only open one hour a day, and certain areas of the city were designated ‘forbidden zones’ where the police could fine people for simply being ‘unwelcome’. Unsurprisingly, she says some of the cases she has dealt with have involved police brutality.

“Vesterbro was divided into several forbidden zones, which were only enforced against the socially marginalised, who were hit with fines upwards of 600 kroner. These people couldn’t pay, so many of them ended up in prison as the fines just kept growing. Even though we managed to get rid of the zones in 2012, there are many people who still owe these fines.”

Navigating the complex jungle of bureaucracy and laws can be tricky for anyone, but as her colleague Soos explains: “You only need rights when they are being violated.”

Most of us can go through life without having a confrontation with the law, or having to deal with a faceless social system. But if you exist on the fringes of society, lack financial power, and face prejudice from all levels of the state it becomes vital to have someone in your corner.

Krøl sits outside Cafe Dugnad in Vesterbro with Gotfredsen. (Photo: Peter Stanners)

Krøl sits outside Cafe Dugnad in Vesterbro with Gotfredsen. (Photo: Peter Stanners)

The story of Martin
On this freezing day on Istedgade, there seems to be no end to people who want to come and express their gratitude to Gotfredsen. One is Martin, a well-dressed young man with a Canadian father and Danish mother, who has lived in Denmark for the past four years.

“My parents divorced when I was fifteen, and my mom moved back to Denmark. Later my father died, and that is when I started taking drugs. My Canadian family was scattered all over the country, so I didn’t really have anyone. I decided to move to Denmark to be with my family and get clean, but I realised that you can’t run from your addiction.”

Martin had developed a heroin addiction and wanted to move onto the methadone, which many addicts are prescribed by the healthcare system to safely manage their addiction. Frustratingly, he was met with a system unwilling to listen or help.

“I was living with my mom in this small town west of Copenhagen, and the local doctor refused to give me methadone. He kept prescribing me the drug suboxone, but it was making me ill and he wouldn’t listen. So I started going into town to buy methadone on the streets.”

The street price of methadone is considerably higher than the prescription price, so Martin began running up debt. Much of his addiction was financed with money from his mother, who sunk herself into debt as her son’s problems deepened. It is with evident remorse that he admits the bill is now well over 100,000 kroner.

But last year, with Gadejuristen’s help, Martin’s life took a turn.

“You know, Nanna is a powerful woman,” he tells me with a smile. “Last year I discovered Gadejuristen and I told them about my situation, and that my doctor was refusing to prescribe me the methadone I needed. So Gotfredsen wrote me a letter to give to my doctor telling him to give me methadone. The letter made the doctor finally give in. I think he was afraid of what she might do. She thinks he is doing something illegal.”

Martin has now managed to find his feet again, and he proudly informs me that Nanna and his mother are Facebook friends. Gadejuristen’s work doesn’t end with paperwork and office hours, it seems.

Martin’s story is not unique, and there is no shortage of people who sing Gadejuristen’s praises – just last year they handled around 1,300 individual cases.

The problem with police
The coffee thaws my fingers back to life, and I listen as people from all corners of the world ask for advice on everything from housing troubles to managing withdrawal. As we prepare to move on to the homeless shelter Mændendes Hjem on Istedgade an older police officers walks by, casting a suspicious gaze at the gathered crowd. But before he can decide if we are trouble Gotfredsen raises her hand and shouts “Hey Jørgen!” He breaks into a big smile and waves back as he walks in the direction of the train station. As he leaves, Gotfredsen leans in close and says, “He is one of the good ones.”

The system and society often looks down on the people on the fringes, and the police is no different. There was widespread public outrage last November when it was reported that it took six phone calls and 40-minutes before the authorities arrived to treat an unconscious homeless man at  the Amagerbro metro station By the time the police arrived on scene, the young man, Daniel Øhler, had passed away.

“Street people don’t feel safe with the police. Many of them have experienced that the police can’t even be bothered to take their complaints,” explains Gotfredsen. “For example, one woman was brutally assaulted on Istedgade. An earring was ripped from her ear and a knife was pressed up to her face. When she went to report the assault, the police said she only had herself to blame for being in that environment. So we went with her and made them take up the case.”

Soos interjects.

“Yeah, there seems to be this idea that because you are in the drug scene, you have signed away all your rights. But this is an example of someone really needing their rights She really had a problem, and she needed her rights.”

Gadejuristen's volunteers push the bicycle full of supplies to meet street people in Vesterbro. (Photo: Peter Stanners)

Gadejuristen’s volunteers push the bicycle full of supplies to meet street people in Vesterbro. (Photo: Peter Stanners)

Your own attorney
Having fought the system on behalf of outsiders for this long, Gotfredsen doesn’t conceal her frustrations with the police, social authorities and politicians. She argues that we need a more humane system that treats people as individuals, and a drug enforcement policy that stops punishing drug users. Among the main problems, she explains, is that the system treats everyone as though they were the same person, and that whenever parliament proposes a new initiative, it is always done without consulting the people it is meant to help.

“No social programme is going to work without working with people,” she explains.

Gadejuristen has reversed this trend to some extent. Their work has not only influenced domestic politics and decision makers, it has also been copied around the world.

“Ten years ago, Norway started an organisation based on our model, and we have colleagues doing similar work for homosexuals in Uganda. We have also been to Indonesia, Thailand, Russia and Lebanon, where we explained how we work and helped get them started.”

As the interview winds down, I am reminded of Martin and his troubles. It is then that I realise that Gadejuristen’s mission isn’t to reform the system, but to care for the individuals that struggle with it – the ‘outlaws’ that face obstacles at every turn.

“Having your own attorney works, especially if you are an outlaw,” Gotfredsen says with a smile. “I love street people. I just want you to remember that.” M

Features, News

By Elias Thorsson

Managing editor. @Eliasthorsson

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