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How Sweden's housing crisis is fuelling homelessness

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
How Sweden's housing crisis is fuelling homelessness

Many people have felt the sting of Sweden's housing crisis. From students looking for a room for the semester, to professionals forking out for pricey sublets while they languish in the housing queue, to parents searching for a larger home for their growing family, it’s a problem that affects very different parts of society, all with varying needs.


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READ ALSO: The story of Sweden's housing crisis

But what about those whose needs are more urgent than most?

The face of Sweden's homeless population is changing, with two recently published studies giving a worrying snapshot of the homelessness crisis in Sweden today.

Two big shifts stand out: more people are living in more extreme situations, and people are increasingly likely to become homeless due to evictions, sudden unemployment, or the breakdown of a relationship rather than mental health or substance abuse problems. More than a fifth of people counted as homeless in 2017 had no need for support from social services other than housing – and that often means they don't receive any support at all.

To put it simply, "we can all end up in the shit". That's how Sarah Britz, editor in chief at street newspaper Faktum, puts it when she talks to The Local.

"There's a thin line between being part of society, with a job, roof over your head and contacts, and falling through the cracks," says Britz. “There are lots of people who think ‘it won’t happen to me', but something can change overnight.”

Faktum is sold by people living in economic difficulty across Götaland, the southern part of Sweden which includes Gothenburg, Malmö (the city with Sweden's highest rate of homelessness), and Lund, and each year, the company produces a calendar to raise money and tell the stories of 12 sellers.

This year, the theme is Shit Happens, and it looks at how 12 Faktum sellers ended up in extreme situations, in their own words. 

Faktum seller Melania, pictured in 2014. Photo: Stig-Åke Jönsson / TT

Take Anna Askungen, from Gothenburg. “I worked as a preschool teacher and was mistreated at my workplace. The result was that I left my job – and lost everything,” she writes.

Then there's Maria, who started to sell the newspaper in Malmö after she divorced her alcoholic husband. “The whole family turned against me. My sons refused to talk to me and I moved to a protected accommodation. It was impossible to go to the Public Employment Service; my husband waited there for me,” her story reads.

Guillermo, a Chilean who fled to Sweden after spending time in prison for political activism in his home country, says he met a Swedish woman “but when we divorced, the house of cards fell apart”.

“I suffered from depression and was forced to move to a campsite with my two-year-old daughter, who I got sole custody of. Since I didn’t have substance abuse problems, I didn’t get any help from social services,” his story continues. 

To a lot of people familiar with Sweden's reputation as a wealthy welfare state, it will sound incomprehensible that this kind of thing – losing a job, an abusive relationship, a divorce – could lead to someone falling through the cracks.

But a report published this month by the National Board of Health and Welfare, carried out on behalf of the government, counted 33,250 people living in some sort of homelessness* in Sweden. That amounts to 0.36 percent of the national population, though the board stressed that it can only provide a "momentary snapshot" of the true situation. Despite collecting information from over 2,000 muncipalities, councils, organizations and other bodies, there are inevitable gaps in the data and difficulties in measuring the number of homeless people.

Around half of the homeless are native Swedes, 62 percent are men, two thirds had been homeless for at least one year, and their average age is around 40. 

But Christina Högblom, who worked on the board's investigation, tells The Local: “What’s important to note is that Sweden’s homeless are a very diverse group, in terms of who they are and what their situation is.” 

A woman sleeps outside in central Stockholm. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT

“The biggest difference we saw in this report compared to 2011 [the last time such a report was carried out] is an increase in what we call ‘acute homelessness’," she adds.

Acute homelessness refers to anyone with no fixed place to spend the night, including those sleeping in cars, churches, and public spaces such as train stations or even out on the streets. In April this year, when the measurements were taken, 5,935 people were reported as living in acute homelessness in Sweden. That’s an increase of 1,500 compared to the same week in 2011.

There were also more people sleeping rough, a total of 650 (400 more than in 2011), while a further 343 lived in tents, cars, or campsites.

So how has this happened?

“I think that one cause is that for very many years, we haven’t built very much in Sweden. We’ve also had a big increase in the population; we reached ten million people earlier this year, so there simply aren’t enough homes. Now, they’re finally building a lot again, but most of the homes are expensive, so it’s very hard,” says Högblom.

The growing population, as well as increased migration to Sweden, has put extra strain on the housing market. According to the country's National Board of Housing, Building and Planning (Boverket), 255 of Sweden's 290 municipalities now report a housing shortage – the highest amount ever reported. 

Meanwhile, changes to legislation and taxes mean that most homes being built are detached houses rather than affordable apartments.

Daniella Waldfogel, industrial policy expert at the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, tells The Local that the organization is following developments in housing and homelessness “extremely closely”.

She explains that one of the reasons new homes are so expensive is “the high cost of land, workers, and materials”, as well as the sheer demand.

“Then the municipality makes special requirements, while regulations and taxes mean the flexibility of the housing market is at a record low. With increased flexibility, the existing square meters could be better and more effectively utilized.”

"We need a rental reform, a tax reform and a land reform to eventually achieve a more prosperous housing market," says Waldfogel, warning that if the government neglects the problem, there will be "major costs for society" in the form of segregation and eventually parallel societies.

But the shortage of affordable homes has already had severe consequences, with new groups of people pushed into homelessness.

“Ten years ago, most homeless people had some sort of social problem; mental health or drug abuse problems, for example, which meant they couldn’t sustain housing," says the head of social services at homelessness charity Stockholm Stadsmissionen, Anna Johansson, when The Local asks what changes she has observed in the homeless population.

Anna Johansson. Photo: Bjorn Wilde/Stadsmissionen

"Now, that group still exists, but it is smaller, and there’s a new group of homeless people who have no other specific problem, it’s just that their economic status makes it tough to find housing. This includes single parents, newly arrived people, and elderly people living on very low incomes."

"Over the last five to ten years, homelessness has changed from primarily being a social issue to being more of a structural issue," she says.

Stadsmissionen also recently published a report into homelessness in Sweden, in which it warned that although building in Sweden is now at its highest rate for 40 years, the homes being built are not suitable for the people who need them.

“Most of it is for a different segment, one that’s very middle-class,” explains Johansson. “The groups that are affected by homelessness tend not to have a strong political voice, and that’s how governments have got away with not making it a political priority.”

“For the first time ever we’re seeing older people, even in their 80s, sleeping rough. That’s not something that we would have seen ten years ago,” she says. Someone may have worked for their whole life for example, but found that in the current economy, their pension doesn't stretch far enough to cover their basic needs.

Recently, the story of 63-year-old Nils Junior Lundh, who became homeless when he retired two years ago, went viral in Sweden. Speaking on TV4’s Nyhetsmorgon, Lundh explained how his pension of 4,700 kronor each month was not sufficient to pay rent, despite having worked all his adult life.

Presenter Tilde de Paula Eby said she found it “completely bizarre” that someone in Sweden could work their whole life and then find themselves homeless, adding that her assumptions “probably say a lot about my prejudices”. But the fact is that there are more and more people like Lundh.

Someone who remembers all too well how quickly things can fall apart is Jessica Wendel.

“I became homeless when I had to leave my husband, who mistreated me physically and psychologically,” Wendel tells The Local over email.

“I tried to get help from social services but they said that they couldn’t help me with food, clothes or housing until the divorce was final. Because of my ex-husband, I ended up with debts registered at (state debt collection agency) Kronofogden that meant I couldn’t get an apartment. I lived in a car for around five months. My daughter was five years old then; she was with me every other week, and then I stayed with my mum.”

Jessica and Tony. Photo: Jessica Wendel

Wendel says she was “surprised and very disappointed” when she realized there was a lack of help for people in her situation.

For her, there was a happy ending. In 2014, she met her current partner, Hasse, who she still lives with today. When they moved to a farm in Laholm, Halland County, she decided to help other people who were struggling, with poverty, homelessness, and loneliness, and this Christmas for the third time, the family will invite these people to celebrate the holidays with them.

In the autumn, Wendel also decided to offer long-term help by renting out her caravan for free to a homeless person. The first person to reply to her offer was Tony Malmgren, who had also become homeless after the end of a relationship.

“He was promised help from his friends in Helsingborg, but no one pitched in when it really mattered,” says Wendel. She adds that Malmgren, who was working a temporary job at a julbord (Christmas buffet) in Skåne when she spoke to The Local, “can stay here as long as he wants, and he’s feeling strong both physically and mentally”.

But it's a problem that the burden is falling increasingly on individuals like Wendel and charities to help Sweden’s homeless as more and more people are affected.

Stadsmissionen's Anna Johansson warns that certain professional groups are at increased risk, and says that people working as nurses or carers for the elderly in Stockholm will struggle to find a home. "Unless you're very, very lucky, your income would simply exclude you from what is being built today," she says.

“We meet people every day who talk about the life they used to lead and how harshly they were affected when the social protection net didn’t work as they had hoped,” her colleague Matilda Jägerdén from Stadsmissionen Skåne, which works in Malmö and Lund, tells The Local.

“These are people who had a job, family and a home but because of illness, bereavement, or unemployment they ended up homeless. They all speak of a situation where they were shocked by how fast everything happened; something they didn’t think was possible before it happened."

A sleeping bag and plastic bag belonging to a homeless person. Photo: Gunnar Lundmark /Svd /TT

Åsa Vilu from Stadsmissionen Gothenburg says homelessness has “really exploded”, with completely new groups emerging, and argues: "Homelessness should also be seen from the perspective of poverty, which is growing in Sweden."

While poverty levels in Sweden are well below the EU27 average, the gap is getting smaller, with 15 percent of the country’s inhabitants at risk of poverty under Eurostat’s definition. Two years ago, Stadsmissionen opened Scandinavia’s first food bank in Stockholm to cope with “an increasing number of economically vulnerable people” in the capital.

Vilu says: “The welfare system no longer exists in the same way. It was set up to protect all of Sweden’s citizens, but that’s not what we’re seeing today, so for many people we are the only option they have for basic needs.”

One example she gives is social welfare support, which is a small amount of money as it was intended for use for a couple of months – just enough to give people time to get back on their feet.

“Now we see people living just on that for ten or 15 years. That means you can never build up a financial buffer to handle unexpected costs, and then it only takes one thing to end up outside of society,” she explains.

Another group at risk is foreigners, according to Anna Johansson. "Asylum seekers and refugees get housing support for the first two years in Sweden, but after that you’re expected to stand on your own two feet," she explains.

"A lot of people arrived in 2015 and are now getting their decisions, or their initial resettlement support is coming to an end so we might see an even bigger increase in families who are finding it hard to find somewhere to live."

And as well as the elderly, those on low incomes, and migrants, yet another group increasingly affected by homelessness is children.

Across Sweden, there are 24,000 children whose parents live in some state of homelessness, according to the National Board of Health and Welfare.

Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö have all reported an increase in the numbers of children who themselves don't have a permanent home this year. In the capital, the figure was 718, while in Malmö the figure is 1,070 and in Gothenburg 638.

"When your parents live in an insecure environment, children tend to take on a lot more responsibility than they should have to. You can’t bring friends home after school, maybe you can’t continue after-school activities, when people ask where you live you don’t know what to say and maybe you’re forced to lie. We also know these children have a much higher risk of living like this when they grow up," says Vilu.

This ties into another problem with the current measures in place to tackle homelessness.

Local authorities in Sweden rent apartments and then lease these to groups in need – but these go in the first instance to people in need of social services, such as those with a history of mental health problems or substance abuse. And there aren’t enough to go round.

What's more, since Sweden's homelessness shelters are also geared towards people with problems such as substance abuse, it's not always a healthy environment for other groups of homeless, and the people we spoke to told us that some homelessvpeople, particularly the elderly and young women, opt to sleep in public spaces such as train stations rather than in these shelters.

Municipalities have begun to take action.

Åsa Lindhagen, Stockholm’s councillor for social affairs, says that homelessness is one of the main issues the city is working on, but that it’s an area where “our work will never be finished”.

Sweden’s three major cities - Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö - have regular meetings to discuss their experiences of the subject, she says.

Åsa Lindhagen. Photo: Anders J Larsson/Flickr

Lindhagen is proud of Stockholm's work to reduce the number of children without a permanent home, for example the city's recent decision to reserve 100 so-called 'trial' or 'training' apartments each year just for families with children, to ensure they don't get overlooked.

"This will be really, really important as they will be able to stay there for five to seven years," she explains. "This has a huge impact on children's lives. But so far, we haven't for example done enough to tackle homelessness among older people, and finding more options for them will be a priority over the next year."

Stadsmissionen has called on Sweden's municipalities to do much, much more.

Its report looked at how many councils were following the directives currently in place, and found a lot of gaps.

"Local authorities need to take responsibility for this structural homelessness," says Anna Johansson. "We want to make sure there’s some kind of follow-up or sanction for councils that neglect these legal instruments."

Stadsmissionen's report puts forward several recommendations, including calling for reform of Sweden’s housing subsidies (bostadsbidrag) which are currently only available to families with children or young people aged 18 to 28, and changing laws to make it easier not just for housing companies to build affordable homes but also for large households to rent out part of their house, reducing pressure on the housing market.

Above all, it calls for Sweden to introduce a national homelessness strategy, including goals for the number of houses to be built for low-income households. This would also see the state evaluate which actions need to be taken in different municipalities to reduce homelessness, and introduce measures to ensure they were followed through. 

"It's not worthy of a welfare state to have anyone sleeping on the streets, and in Sweden we have elderly people and even children who have to," says Johansson.

"This is about several groups; local councils, the housing market, and the labour market," she adds. "We want to bring a broad political spectrum and really make this a priority."

* Soicalstyrelsen's definition of homelessness includes people living short-term with friends or relatives, as well as those in short-term housing solutions provided by Swedish authoritIes.


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