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12/5/2020 / Issue #030 / Text: Gabrielle Fradin

Physical distancing is a privilege, even in Amsterdam

On March 13th, the municipality decided to indefinitely postpone the eviction of the Garage, an empty parking lot in Kraaiennest, Zuid-Oost where around 80 undocumented men live. The eviction was initially planned for March 15th. On April 1st, the municipality of Amsterdam issued a long-awaited statement on potential solutions for the Garage inhabitants. Not surprisingly, what they offered was merely a night shelter that could barely accommodate half of the Garage’s inhabitants, whilst putting them on the street during the day. The discrepancy between official Covid-19 guidelines and such half-hearted, unrealistic solutions is worthy of a good April fools’ joke.

This proposal is a clear sign of policy-makers’ blatant disregard for the Garage inhabitants’ life situation. When you live in a place where you have a community, where you can cook food, store your belongings and stay night and day – why on earth would you swap it for an indefinite, city-run shelter open from 4pm until 9.30am, where any derogations from the rules can get you kicked out. Homeless people, and more precisely here undocumented homeless people, need a place to live, settle and grow. They don’t need another shelter with its strict rules and expensive security services. Especially not if that shelter throws them back on the street every morning during a pandemic, Apparently when everyone is ordered to stay home, homeless people are actively put outside by the municipality.

Such ‘non solutions’ advanced by the municipal government are even more of a let-down considering how they very obviously benefit from places like the Garage, especially in times like these. Indeed, the Garage provides a precise location where the inhabitants have no choice but to stay, the government is also not bearing any of the costs needed to run this place accommodating up to 100 men. The life at the Garage is mainly funded by 3 small grassroots organisations carried by committed ordinary citizens, namely the Mandela Kids, Family on a Mission and We Are Here, collectively striving to scrape together the 1,600 euros needed each week to provide the basic food and energy necessities to the inhabitants.

We Are Here’s attempt at squatting a decent building

Following such governmental hypocrisy, We Are Here decided to take the matters in their own hands and on 6th April released a statement announcing that they were currently squatting an empty building in Diemen. As described by one of the squatters, the building was ideal to host the whole population of the Garage, containing many rooms, ensuring some physical distancing, but most importantly boasting kitchens, running water, modern toilets and electricity. In other words, the most basic necessities for a somewhat dignified life.

The response of the municipality? Well, as you would have already guessed by now, when the squatters woke up after their first night, they were welcomed by Amsterdam Police. The number of police vans grew as the day went by. Eventually, the municipality refused to start the legal squatting procedure. An eyewitness says that Amsterdam’s mayor Femke Halsema, was sitting at the back of one of the vans on scene, ensuring to expressly give the right to the Police to evict the squatters by force if necessary. Eventually, with the sound of the police forcing entry into the myriad of rooms contained in the empty building, duly ensuring that all squatters had left, We Are Here went back to the dark Garage.

By failing to provide a sustainable alternative for the Garage inhabitants, the city of Amsterdam is denying them the possibility of physical distancing. Lockdown or not, in Kraaiennest, each night around 80 men are (attempting to) fall asleep under a tent shared with 6 other people. Quite unsurprisingly then, physical distancing is a privilege that the municipal government decided not to accord to the Garage inhabitants. The shameful operation in Diemen only comes to underline their determination to deny them the right to stay safe. As I write those lines, no case of Covid-19 has been signaled at the Garage, and one could only imagine the devastating consequences it could have if it did.