1 step forward, 1 step back: the closure of the emergency shelter in the Staatsliedenbuurt
On August 1st, the Van Hogendorphall officially returned to its original function as a sports hall, thereby closing its doors to the group of homeless people it sheltered during the Corona lockdown. This marked the intention of the municipality to go back to business-as-usual, a laudable goal if it had come with a strong commitment to sustainable solutions for the homeless of Amsterdam. Clearly, closing the Hogendorphall without putting forward an alternative displays the opposite and left the sports hall’s guests to return to the same harsh reality of being homeless.
In March, following Rutte’s national lockdown announcement, the Amsterdam municipality decided to transform a few sports halls into homeless shelters for the people most economically hurt by the global pandemic. As school kids and sports clubs left these places deserted, they were soon filled by charity workers, volunteers and a variety of people who found themselves without a roof over their heads during the lockdown. As both of us volunteered in one of those shelters, we wanted to share our impressions of these particular places that provide a much needed space to rest as well as a place where social links are strengthened and future opportunities created.
During the 4 months in which the shelter was operating, every day around 4pm, several men started arriving one by one and sat in front of the sports hall around the corner from Westerpark. As some lit up cigarettes, others just lied down or chatted with each other waiting for the shelter to open. Thanks to the city’s decision to limit opening hours to night time, around one hundred men were left to roam the streets of Amsterdam during the day.
At 4:30pm the facility opened its doors and the guests started entering the sports hall heading towards their personal area - a square, tape-delineated space, containing a camp bed, a small desk and a chair. A couple of volunteers, positioned in the middle of the room, at the bottom of what is usually used as stands, set up a small stand offering refreshments and snacks. When the shelter opened, a surprising amount of donated food arrived at the shelter, including Albert Heijn’s most expensive ginger beer bottles, Turkish delights as well as (out-of-date) ultra-nutritious, vegan peanut butter protein bars. As the hype of Corona related donations from big corporations was wearing out, grassroots solidarity took over. Small, local shops and neighbours were providing collected underwear, t-shirts, shoes, socks and basic necessities.
Asked about what the hardest part of running the shelter was, Els van Koeverden, the programme coordinator from the Regenboog Groep that operated the Van Hogendorp shelter, pointed out that setting up and implementing rules for a crowd with so many different needs and individual stories was quite challenging. In addition, the shelter was under the ultimate supervision of the municipality. Unsurprisingly, this led to rigid administrative rules that triggered a few problematic situations of people not allowed in, although there were free beds inside.
Most guests had precarious jobs that didn’t survive the economic downturn. Predominantly Eastern European and North African, more than 60% of the beneficiaries were originally not from the Netherlands. Still, the astonishing diversity of people, journeys and stories makes any generalisation about the status of the guests hard to achieve. We met guests that had been living abroad for 15 years, hopping from one production line to the other, constantly changing location; others were seasonal workers locked in the Netherlands as the borders shut; others again were Amsterdammers, struggling to find sustainable accommodation. Still, what most of their stories had in common was the forced reliance on extremely precarious job contracts that allows employers and job agencies to easily terminate it. As a consequence seeing some guests find jobs that were as precarious as the ones before came with a bittersweet aftertaste.
Most disappointing though, is the shelter’s closure without the municipality offering a clear alternative. Indeed, Els van Koeverden rightly emphasises, accommodation is a basic necessity and is key to putting one’s life back on the rails. It is impossible to get anywhere if one is constantly worrying about finding a bed for the night. That’s why, although we welcome the municipality’s support of the homeless, we condemn the shelters closure. In fact, it undermines the city’s initial positive steps and makes its commitment to the needs of the homeless community appear half-hearted at best. Indeed, any serious commitment to ending homelessness would entail setting up a reliable and permanent network of accommodation centres, alike the Hogendorpall. As it was, the shelter revealed itself to be far more than a mere place to rest for its guests, as it quickly became a safe space to establish social links, access activities and crucial information to grow and move forward. Such transitional places are crucial and the work achieved within a few months at the Hogendorphall should be seen as a positive precedent to be inspired by for future public policy towards the homeless in Amsterdam and beyond.