Homelessness in Malmö: ‘A vicious circle’

As homelessness figures increase across Sweden, contributor Patrick Reilly heads to a soup kitchen in Malmö to find out more about the city's estimated 1,000 homeless people and what's being done to help them.

Homelessness in Malmö: 'A vicious circle'

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.

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

Follow Patrick on Twitter here

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INTERVIEW: International students ‘vulnerable’ to Swedish housing shortages

People moving to Malmö to study now have to wait as long as a year to receive accommodation, Milena Milosavljević, the president of the Student Union in the city, has told The Local. The situation, she says, is "urgent and acute".

INTERVIEW: International students 'vulnerable' to Swedish housing shortages

The Sofa Project, run by the Student Union Malmö, received 80 applications this year from students who wanted to rent short-term accommodation, showing just how acute the current housing shortage is.

These 80 applicants were vying for one of seven spots, ranging from a spare room to a sofa bed – from hosts who sign up to offer their spaces to new arrivals.  As the programme only had seven hosts registered this year, the project had to close its application page to others, otherwise the number would have surpassed 80.

“They are ready to come to Malmö and sleep on a sofa bed at a stranger’s house before they find accommodation,” Milosavljević told The Local. 

Malmö recently received a red designation from the Swedish National Union of Students, which publishes an annual report assessing the housing situation in university towns and cities across Sweden. A red designation means that finding suitable accommodation as a student takes more than one semester. The report found that 61 percent of students live in a city that has been designated a red ranking.

READ ALSO: Sweden’s student union warns that housing shortages are back this semester

“The reality of Malmö and the reason why it became red is that to find suitable accommodation you have to wait up to a year,” Milosavljević said.

Some individuals, she said might have to wait up to three years to find their own accommodation, making do with second-hand contracts, long commutes, and living with family members in the meantime. For newly-arrived international students, who lack personal numbers when they move here and so cannot join Swedish housing queues, looking for suitable housing becomes a complex task.

“International students are more vulnerable because they don’t have a personal number to enter the system before they come to Sweden,” Milosavljević explained.

Milosavljević herself moved to Malmö as an international, fee-paying student. Because she paid tuition, she was offered housing by Malmö University. Based in part on her own experience, Milosavljević explained that the housing issue cannot be reduced to a shortage in the number of flats and rooms. There is also a shortage of appropriate housing options for different needs.

“They offered me accommodation in a student building,” she said. “Not an apartment, but a room – and I came with my husband. The room was not enough for two of us.”

Student accommodation must accommodate the different needs of different members of the student body, Milosavljević said, including those who move with partners or spouses, or even with their children.

In the past year, one new student apartment building was built in Malmö, with 94 new spaces for the city’s student body. This is inadequate, Milosavljević said. While Malmö is growing, and there is residential construction being carried out around the city, it is unclear how many of those new buildings will prioritise the city’s student population.

The city’s student population, too, is growing. As the pandemic era ended in Sweden, students returned to campus. And new students joined them. While student ranks grew, housing options remained stagnant.

“From our perspective from the Student Union, we have talked about, in the previous years, how the situation after the pandemic is going to get even worse for the students,” Milosavljević said. “There’s an increase of students coming back, new students, and already not even enough housing.”

Milosavljević has fielded calls and emails from students who say that they cannot move to Malmö because they cannot find housing.

“They are already working on it,” Milosavljević told The Local of the university’s response.

There are plans to create more housing for international students, but these proposals focus mainly on students from European Union, leaving other international students out. All international students should be given priority for student accommodation, Milosavljević said, because none of them have access to the Swedish housing market.

“I do believe strongly that the City of Malmö and Malmö University need to have urgent negotiations and start building straight away,” she said.

Because Malmö University is a public university, it must follow the lead of the Ministry of Education and Research. Milosavljević acknowledged that in the aftermath of Sweden’s recent elections, which put the right-bloc in power, student housing shortages might not rank highly on a list of national priorities.

“The Student Union Malmö considers this situation quite urgent and acute,” Milosavljević said. “We are more than prepared to sit down and talk so we can actually do something, instead of just having meetings. The students will continue to suffer if the living conditions and the bostad [housing] situation in Malmö is not improved.”