Who are the contemporary homeless inhabitants of Amsterdam?
Sanne van Oosten
Finally, winter is over. As is tradition in Amsterdam city life, this is unoficially celebrated by locals as they switch to their summer wardrobe a little bit too fast. Thus bearing through unnecessarily cold bike rides to work as a celebration of the first rays of sun. They can feel the summer coming and are euforic because of it. As the Amsterdam urban dwellers happily flock to the terraces, they aren’t the ones who are happiest that spring has set in. The people sleeping on the streets are facing the easier season to live in. And there are a lot more homeless than one would expect.
To learn more about the homeless in Amsterdam, I signed up to volunteer with the Salvation Army. I was scheduled for the so-called soup-bus, where I handed out sandwiches with cheese and ham. Another volunteer dished out soup and yet another volunteer poured coffee. Most soup-bus-clientele started talking to me in English and some in German. Only a few spoke to me in Dutch, and the ones who did usually didn’t sound like it was their native tongue. I handed out sandwiches to about 70 people and 3 of them sounded like they were born and raised in the Netherlands. According to the regular volunteer, the last couple of years most of the Amsterdam homeless have also been Eastern-European. Since I’m a curious person, I asked many of the soup-bus clients where they were from. The answers varied from person to person: many were from Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. A few clients came from Spain, Germany and one even had a posh British accent.
Since a few years the 4 largest cities of the Netherlands utilize a rule called regional linking (regiobinding). In order to be able to sleep in any of the homeless shelters, one must be able to prove that they have been connected with the area for at least two years. Therefore, most recent immigrants are not eligible for shelter. The Salvation Army does help them by giving them food, but providing shelter is no longer allowed. Lately, the flip-side of this policy is being dicussed by politicians and media more often. For instance, it is being researched if it does not contradict the EU-principle of free mobility of people.
Two winters ago, the minister of Health (Minister Veldhuijzen van Zanten) asked the national association of municipalities to reconsider this rule. Also, a member of parliament for the Labor Party (Martijn van Dam) asked the minister of Health to do something about this as well. The only way in which non-Dutch homeless people can find shelter in the Netherlands is if the winterregeling is in effect. Meaning, that they can only find shelter if it is literally freezing outside. However, there are never enough beds to put up every homeless person of Amsterdam. Winter is over now, but how many homeless people will be in Amsterdam next winter?
The most striking thing I noticed while volunteering was that I would have never labelled the soup-bus clientele as homeless. There were no stereotypical frizzy-bearded men carrying everything around in plastic bags. I might have labelled some of them as the alternative post-modern type, but never as homeless. The day after I volunteered on the soup-bus I recognised three people I had handed out food to the day before. The guy with the black eye, the older man with the duffle bag and the man with the remarkably proper coat. I would have never labelled these people as homeless if I had not volunteered for the Salvation Army. That makes me wonder, how many people live in the cracks of our society without us even noticing?
If you are interested in also volunteering for the soup-bus of the Amterdam Salvation Army, just call the coordinator Wim Bijl on the following number: +31657887297. Since this volunteering opportunity is so popular and Wim Bijl wants as many people as possible to experience it, don’t expect to be asked to do any volunteering more than once.