It is the first time in a long time that the sun is shining again in Amsterdam. The whole weekend lies ahead. Everyone is in a rush to make the most of it before the rain returns. In front of the supermarket, like every day, Theo stands next to his backpack, the street papers he sells tucked under his arm.
“Hi Theo, how is it going with you today?”
“Well … at least it’s a nice day.”
“Nah, it’s not a good day for me.”
Perhaps when everyone is in a rush to make the most of their day, Theo stops existing for them. This does not just mean that everyone is too busy to stop and buy his paper. All the laughing couples, all the excited children, all the smiling passers-by, they give Theo an acute sense of his place in the city. He stands right next to them, but between him and them exists an invisible and impenetrable divide: they have homes; he is homeless.
Recent figures published by Statistics Netherlands (CBS, Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek) show that the number of homeless people has soared in the past few years. In 2009 there were 17,800 homeless people in the Netherlands. In 2016 this figure nearly doubled to 30,500 homeless people. Especially remarkable is the sharp rise of the number of homeless people under thirty and homeless people from non-Western backgrounds: from 4,000 (2009) to 12,400 (2016) young people living on the streets, and from 6,500 (2009) to 14,900 (2016) non-Western homeless people. Indeed, the intersection of these two groups, young non-Western people, has more than quadrupled between 2009 and 2016.
Behind these dry numbers are multiple human tragedies. However, as the CBS informs further, one important limitation of their official statistics is that they only cover homeless people who are on at least one of the existing registers for social care and shelter. They don’t include for example those people without papers who can’t reveal themselves to the authorities and therefore aren’t on the books anywhere. Charities try to keep track of their numbers, but as the Trimbos Institute notes, reliable results are difficult to achieve. A recent official inquiry into homelessness in Amsterdam complains in a similar vein about absent or inconclusive records from the municipality (Rekenkamer Metropool Amsterdam, Wachten op opvang, 2017: 6).
Before addressing these striking blind spots, let us return to what official numbers state beyond doubt: the sharp rise of homelessness in the Netherlands. The cluster of reasons for it include social benefit cuts, a shortfall of affordable housing, restrictive rules around shelter and homeless care. What makes this sharp rise of homelessness truly remarkable, however, is the fact that it started shortly after the four largest Dutch cities – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht, also known as the G4 – developed and implemented a detailed seven-year action plan against homelessness. This initiative dates from 2006 and is known as the G4 Homelessness Action Plan. The 2006 Action Plan had four major aims: (1) reintroducing homeless people to regular work and permanent accommodation, (2) reducing controllable reasons for homelessness like forced eviction, (3) post-incarceration re-socialization programmes, and finally (4) the reduction of public nuisance and petty criminality caused by homeless people.
That public policy has not succeeded to curb homelessness is clear from the numbers. In particular, it has failed to deliver on points (1) and (2) of the Action Plan. But the puzzling fact remains that homeless people in, for example, the city of Amsterdam seem to be less visible despite this failure. We have stumbled on this disturbing state of affairs twice already in the course of this article: Theo is overlooked in broad daylight by those around him – this tells us something about how little the phenomenon of homelessness strikes us in ordinary situations. Maybe it is no accident that it is on tourist blogs where you find some degree of astonishment about the virtual absence of homeless people in the streets of Dutch cities (e.g. https://whatsupwithamsterdam.com/homeless-in-amsterdam/). Then, it is evident that official bookkeeping on homelessness fails to register the actual extent of homelessness, even by its own admission – this tells us something about structural problems with homelessness policy. While the G4 Homelessness Action Plan failed to reintegrate homeless people and to prevent homelessness, it succeeded in the realization of point (4), cleaning up the public image of Dutch cities by making the homeless invisible. Here we find two kinds of invisibility, which are not mutually exclusive: while we might be less sensitive to homelessness around us (in part, perhaps, because the homeless do not fit our stereotypes), the state has simultaneously been working hard to render homelessness invisible, for example, through strict enforcement of vagrancy laws.
The policy on homelessness indeed rests on an ambivalence. On the one hand, there is some understanding that society should invest public resources in order to help the homeless. On the other hand, there is a drive to suppress what is perceived as the unacceptable lifestyle of the homeless. A recent research paper formulates this side of the ambivalence succinctly: “the aim is to combat their [perceived] amoral lifestyle and curb the nuisance they cause, even if this only involves them being visible” (Graaf, Doorn, Kloppenburg & Akkermans 2010: 6).
It is necessary to caution against a misunderstanding at this point. In talking about homelessness in terms of lifestyle we do not mean to suggest that homelessness is a voluntary choice. It rarely ever is. Taking drugs might be a lifestyle choice; drug addiction, a major problem among the homeless, isn’t – nobody chooses it. For our purposes, therefore, choice and lifestyle are two separate concepts. We want to speak of homelessness in terms of lifestyle, because this allows us to say that homelessness is a possible, even likely, outcome for those who cannot live within those frameworks of life – lifestyles – that society accepts and reinforces.
How strong the motivation is to make these unwanted lifestyles disappear is clear from the fact that even failed attempts to offer homeless people support, to give them shelter, to look after their various other needs, such as the G4 Homelessness Action Plan, manage to make them disappear from the streets. What waits for those outside the circle of municipal shelters and recognized rehabilitation and reintegration programmes are overstretched emergency facilities, and beyond those the municipal vagrancy and loitering laws (see for example Gemeente Amsterdam, Algemene Plaatselijke Verordening 2008: art. 2.20). These regulations make it difficult for homeless people to sleep outside, as they commit a crime by their very presence in public spaces at night.
Homeless people in the streets of Dutch cities are caught in a spiral of exclusion and criminalization. They are invisible because they have to hide away with family and friends until their hosts can’t continue to shelter them any longer. They sleep in the open in obscure spots where they can’t be discovered (De Groene Amsterdammer, “Zelfredzaam zonder dak”, 20 December 2017). Despite being perfectly well organized to do his job as a street paper vendor, Theo belongs to this group of homeless people. Sometimes he is sleeping rough, sometimes at his friends’ who drink too much and get into fights, sometimes, when he can afford it, at a youth hostel, “to get a break from the crazy people”. The G4 Homelessness Action Plan does not apply to him. To get access to municipal shelter and rehabilitation facilities, homeless people need to fulfill stringent requirements (cf. H. Obink, “Amsterdamse daklozen krijgen te weinig hulp”, Trouw, 15 December 2017). They need to go through complex procedures to prove that they can’t help themselves; they need thorough documentation to be eligible for admission; they also need to demonstrate that they have some connection to the municipality where they ask for help, sometimes reaching back several years. Theo fails half these entrance criteria. He is one of the 66.7% of applicants who get rejected by the Amsterdam shelter system, often without further explanation (Rekenkamer Metropool Amsterdam 2017: 30-4). While the G4 Homelessness Action Plan doesn’t help Theo, the very same Action Plan makes sure that he needs to find ways to stay out of sight.
Why this effort to suppress the visibility of homelessness? Just for the sake of argument, let’s turn around the perspective. Whereas current policy assists the homeless on the premise that to help them is to make them conform to given societal standards of human functioning, helping the homeless could also mean to accommodate society to what is officially perceived as an aberrant lifestyle. Helping the homeless could also mean to create conditions that make it unnecessary to render “dysfunctional” lifestyles invisible.
Meet George. He lives on the streets of Amsterdam because he is struggling with a serious drug addiction. He is one of those cases deemed recalcitrant by the authorities, because he doesn’t seem able to reintegrate on their terms. When activists took over unused premises somewhere in the city and opened an informal social space there, George became a regular. Gradually, he took over tasks. He cleaned the space after closing times, ran the bar, and was entrusted with the evening’s revenue. George flourished, despite his ongoing drug addiction. Most importantly, he moved among non-homeless people and, unlike Theo outside the supermarket, had their recognition. The unavoidable had to happen, of course, and the Amsterdam authorities ordered the activists to leave after about two years. When George heard the news that eviction could not be averted any longer, he burst into tears.
This may be mere anecdotal evidence. But it provides enough contrast to the prevalent picture to illustrate how little it takes to keep homelessness in view and at least to suggest how effective this could be in breaking the paralysis along with the stigma of homelessness for the homeless person herself. That society is on the wrong track and has to be shown this fact about itself by stark contrasts is one of the central teachings of Diogenes of Sinope, one the most recognizable homeless people in history. He famously lived in a large grain jar in the marketplace of Athens, confronting the Athenians with his unusual way of life and his philosophical antics. One anecdote has him light a lamp in broad daylight and walk around the city with it. Asked what he was doing he replied “I’m looking for an honest man” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 6.2.41; compare Nietzsche’s madman from Gay Science, bk III, §125). Another anecdote has him taking his breakfast in public, which went against Athenian custom. An unfriendly crowd gathered around him, accusing him of behaving like a dog. Diogenes retorted that the crowd behaved like dogs, watching him eat (DL 6.2.61). When he was captured and sold as a slave, and people asked him what he could do, he replied that he could be someone’s master (DL 6.2.29-30). Diogenes challenged society around him by turning their stereotypes and preconceptions upside down. The phenomenon of homelessness holds up a mirror to society. It shows us the limits of our freedom and our norms. It shows us that to be valued as a person, to be visible, is, among others thing, to fit what Foucault called the truth regime of capitalism: to be part of the circuit of production.
The notion of homelessness, then, is not only about a lack of shelter, but quite literally, a lack of home. The homeless are not only without shelter, they fail to find a home in our society
In a series of articles, we will explore the notion of homelessness further through interviews, philosophical reflection, and literature.
Photo: Pablo van Wetten