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Homelessness in Malmö: 'A vicious circle'

13 Mar 2013, 10:20

Published: 13 Mar 2013 10:20 GMT+01:00

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Malmö's Folkets Park is best known for its funfair and live music in the summer. On a recent snowy winter morning the park is busy once again but for an altogether different reason - to host a soup kitchen for the city's growing number of homeless.

Soppkök Malmö ('Soup Kitchen Malmö') has been dishing out warm meals since last April and similar operations are underway in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Organizers Janni Bjödstrup and Douha Mohammed Ali felt compelled to do something after noticing how widespread the issue had become.

"We want to highlight the problem of increasing homelessness in our so-called welfare state for the general public, as the situation has changed a lot in recent years," Janni Bjödstrup tells The Local as she sets up an awning for the temporary kitchen.

"Nowadays it isn't just those with addictions who end up on the streets. There are a lot of homeless people who have lost their home as their business collapsed during the economic crisis."

The challenges of securing a flat also contribute to the problem, according to Bjödstrup.

"Getting an apartment is difficult anyway and with debts you can’t get a reference and end up with nowhere to go," she says.

"It’s a vicious circle."

Estimates put the number of homeless people in Malmö at approximately 1,000, according to a recent survey carried out by the city council. Nationally the figure is estimated to be around 34,000.

However, both figures likely underestimate the true scope of Sweden's homeless population, due to the large numbers of undocumented people who end up in the country.

Flyers printed Greek, Polish, Hungarian and over a dozen other languages promoting the latest soup kitchen are a testament to the fact that homelessness is a problem for people with a wide range of backgrounds.

Joint organizer Douha Mohammed Ali grew up in Malmö and tells The Local that she always sees new faces at every soup kitchen.

"I always wondered how people end up homeless as we have social security measures in Sweden that are supposed to prevent it. Every person has a different reason why they are on the street," he explains.

"Often it can be somebody losing a family member and struggling to cope afterwards. It’s not just a case of drink and drug addictions as that is the last thing that happens when people don’t get the help they need in the first place."

Judging by the cosmopolitan mixture of people at the soup kitchen, the homeless problem in Malmö appears to transcend the traditional stereotypes of addiction. Many came to get some blankets to stave off the cold when they sleep under one of the city's many bridges.

Michel Perrin, a well-spoken French engineer, came to Sweden 15 years ago for work but after losing his job and his home he has been forced to live on the streets for the past two years.

"During winter the trick is to take a walk at high pace to keep you warm at night," Perrin says whilst sipping a cup of coffee.

"If you have a good sleeping bag you can sleep for several hours under a bridge. If it's -15C, that can be a problem, but when it's -2C or so, then you can sleep for seven hours in a row if you are wrapped up properly."

Many of the homeless people who gathered under the awning said they would walk all night and then go to the library or a church when they opened in the morning and take a nap.

During a particularly cold spell in Malmö January, the Immanuelskyrkan church opened its doors for a couple of nights to accommodate nine homeless people. Such gestures are rare but nevertheless draw attention to the matter.

While cold winters in Skåne are a natural threat to survival for the homeless, they also often much face the prospect of violence. Last November, 53-year old Asim Berciragic, who was a well known beggar in the city, was savagely beaten to death on the steps of a local school.

Berciragic's murder prompted outrage and there was a candle-lit vigil outside a local supermarket where he often slept. Police have since arrested a 44-year-old homeless man in connection with the murder.

At the heart of the homeless problem is Malmö's sheer lack of rental properties, leaving prospective tenants on a waiting list of years to get an apartment. Local authorities say they have 700 people who could move into a flat tomorrow - if there were any available.

As a result Malmö, municipality paid out 168 million kronor ($26.5 million) - half a million a day - on homeless accommodation last year. Money which the authorities freely admit could be better spent on tackling the housing crisis.

"It’s an awful lot of money and there is so much we could with it to help the most needy," says Karin Andersson of the city's department for individuals and families.

"Today, in principle, anyone can become homeless. However, the responsibility to solve the housing problem ends up with social services. It's all about the lack of apartments in Malmö. We need considerably more small flats in the city," she adds.

There is no shortage of tragic stories from people about why they ended up at the soup kitchen needing help. One told organizer Janni Bjödstrup that she had suffered a stroke and was evicted from her home while she was in hospital. Still in recovery and without any family support, she remains homeless.

Story continues below…

Such stories are forcing locals and newcomers to Malmö to re-evaluate their impressions of Sweden.

"I was shocked to see so many homeless people in Malmö as it is not something you imagine would happen here," says South Korean exchange student and volunteer Song Yi-Yi as she serves out warm soup.

"In Korea we have the same problem but there's a real 'out of sight and out of mind' mentality. When I go back I'm going to help out more. When I came to Malmö I certainly didn't think I’d be telling people back home about the homeless problem but there is poverty no matter where you go."

For a country that prides itself on its vast social safety net and high standard of living, the fact remains that new soup kitchens are being started up across Sweden.

Homelessness, on the current scale at least, is likely to remain according to soup kitchen organizer Janni Bjödstrup.

"In the short-term, soup kitchens can provide a temporary solution but in the long term the government and ruling authorities need to fully address the problem," she tells The Local.

"Eliminating the prejudice is a start and the only way to do that is meet the people who are experiencing this every single day."

Patrick Reilly

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Your comments about this article

13:30 March 13, 2013 by JoshArnold
REALLYY??? i honestly thought its impossible to go homeless in a country like sweden.... are there not any homeless shelters in the country?
18:08 March 13, 2013 by caitnor
Why are there no homeless shelters or temporary housing at least during the 10 months of winter?
19:27 March 13, 2013 by Khazara
60% of the homeless in Stockholm are "native" (ironic) Swedes; people strung out (emphasis) on heroin or alcohol. They earn their next fix buy selling the "Situation" magazine on the street or near the subways. Another percent of homeless people, I'd day 30% are EU citizens who came here to capitalize on the so called benefits of living in welfare state. The remainder are people who thought they could find a job in Sweden; but wound up picking cans to get by. I don't see many of them this time of year, way to cold I guess.

Illusion shattered- If you do not have money or have a way to earn money, do not come to Sweden.
20:27 March 14, 2013 by Kronaboy
If you change the question to sleeping rough you will find figures change to 60% EU; fact is Swedish government has interpreted the 2004 Directive so restrictively it has put the EU citizen in a worse position than none EU migrants. This is all good and well for trying to dissuade migrants from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria etc..; however, what Rhinefeld has failed to consider is, Sweden is also a net exporter of labour to UK, Germany, France etc.., and as Cameron clearly stated it is following Sweden's example and that the UK will be restricting the access of EU nationals to Social Assistance, housing and legal redress.
11:39 March 16, 2013 by johan rebel
Right, so Malmö is short apartments for 700 people? They would not have that problem if they had not sucked in countless so-called "refugees" year after year, who cost a fortune and cause all sorts of problems that drain the city of resources.
13:49 March 16, 2013 by Emerentia
Of course there are homeless shelters but charge the taxpayers about 1800/night (in Stockholm, I don´t know about Malmö). That's 657 000 kr for just one homeless person during just one year. Its very expensive.

It's not only about being short of apartments, people who get evicted because of their alcohol- and/or drug addiction often are disturbing towards neighbours and dont pay their rents.
22:36 March 16, 2013 by HörbDörpmeister
I was wondering how someone in Sweden could fall through the cracks and end up homeless until I got to this part:

"...underestimate the true scope of Sweden's homeless population, due to the large numbers of undocumented people who end up in the country."

Is it true that the homeless in Malmö are largely undocumented / illegal aliens? I know that it feels good to cloth and feed those in need, but if the above is true, it sounds like these homeless are just foreign moochers looking for a good deal in Sweden.
14:02 March 30, 2013 by Kronaboy

No the vast majority of the people sleeping rough in Sweden are EU nationals who are denied social assistance because the Swedish Government discourages EU nationals from migrating to Sweden by denying them Social Assistance.
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