Down And Out In Europe

  • Share
  • Read Later

Big Sid tells lies. During the course of a single three-hour conversation on a London street corner, he relates his life story four times, each version more fantastical than the last. In one, he swims to the middle of the Thames in midwinter to rescue a drowning dog. In another, he vanquishes a phalanx of machete-wielding skinheads with his bare hands. Sid is a black man who says his parents came to Britain from the Caribbean, but the specific biographical details he serves up vary so dramatically he might easily be talking about three or four completely different people; the narrative inconsistencies mount as he works his way through a two-liter bottle of hard cider. By the halfway point, he's contradicting himself almost every other sentence, and lapsing into incoherent repetitions of his two favorite phrases: "short-term" and "long-term."

Depending on which version of the saga you believe, Big Sid was born in South London, or in Yorkshire; he's a high school dropout, or played football at university; he was married (and divorced) twice, or never. He may be 35, or 40. He claims to be utterly alone in the world, an orphan with no relatives at all, but asked if he will allow himself to be photographed for this article, he balks. "I have family, man," he says, his high voice abruptly dropping to an embarrassed whisper. "I don't want them to pick up your magazine and see me in this condition."

His condition is the one certain, cruel, truth about Big Sid: he is homeless. On this bitterly cold winter night, he will make a bed of flattened cardboard boxes in the recessed doorway of a music store, squeeze into a fluorescent green sleeping bag that's too small for his angular 2-m frame, and rest his bald head on an old postman's sack that contains his every possession. He's been a rough sleeper for much of his adult life, wandering from city to city in a near-constant alcoholic haze. Once or twice a year, he will go to a shelter for homeless people, to get out of inclement weather or to have a doctor look at the sores on his feet. But these interludes rarely last more than a few days: Sid finds sustained human company stressful, and is deeply suspicious of anything that smacks of officialdom. "The shelters are okay for short-term, for a bath and medical treatment," he says, "but they aren't for long-term, man, not for me."

Finding long-term solutions for people like Big Sid is an enormous — and growing — challenge for Western Europe, where homelessness has quietly been climbing to levels not seen since the end of World War II. Hard numbers are scarce, but according to the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA), a Brussels-based umbrella body of homeless organizations, at least 3 million Western Europeans are homeless this winter — and between one-fifth and one-third of them are members of homeless families. Only a small proportion, less than 10%, sleep rough like Big Sid; most huddle into shelters or temporary housing, live in shanties, or bed down in the houses of friends and family. Think homelessness is an American problem? Think again. As a percentage of population, it's as bad in Europe as it is in the U. S., where there are an estimated 2 million homeless, according to Dennis Culhane, a social-policy expert at the University of Pennsylvania, who extrapolates his figure from attendance at homeless facilities in nine U.S. jurisdictions.

That Europe's homelessness problem is roughly the same as America's — and that one of the fastest-growing segments of Europe's homeless population is families — is a shock. After all, Europe sees itself as kinder, gentler and more socially responsible than the U.S., with an extensive, expensive social safety net that's designed to nurture and protect the most vulnerable sections of the populace — the kind of people who are thrown to the wolves in winner-take-all America. But that might just be the point: it's easier to be homeless in Europe, where even the down-and-out get social-welfare checks.

 

What's even more scary is that 3 million is almost certainly an underestimate: most European countries simply don't know where to look or how to count the homeless. Government data are as confusing, and about as reliable, as Big Sid's stories. Austria and Spain have no official statistics at all. Germany, France, Italy and the U.K. have what are best described as estimates, many of them regarded with skepticism by voluntary organizations that work with the homeless. INSEE, France's national statistics agency, admits that its official count of 86,500 is only based on the number of adults that went at least once to a soup kitchen or an accommodation service. FEANTSA estimates that the real number of French homeless is closer to 200,000, but many aid organizations claim that even this figure is too low. The British government claims there are just 596 rough sleepers across the country, but those who work in London's shelters say there are more than 1,000 in the capital alone.

It doesn't help that different European governments (and indeed different voluntary organizations) have varying definitions of homelessness. In Italy, only rough sleepers qualify — there are around 17,000 of them, according to the official count. At the other end of the spectrum, Finland includes as homeless people staying temporarily with relatives and friends, and even prisoners about to be released who have no homes to go to. FEANTSA, the closest thing to a pan-European authority on the subject, uses a combination of official statistics, data from voluntary groups and its own research to make educated guesses.

Inconsistent definitions also explain why some homelessness groups express surprise at the comparison between homeless numbers in Europe and the U.S. "This is such a difficult phenomenon to quantify, and it's hard to know whether the Americans use the same yardsticks as we do," says Jeremy Swain, chief executive of the London homeless charity Thames Reach Bondway. But even if the calculations are imprecise, experts say, they've seen enough anecdotal evidence in recent years to know that Europe's homeless population is enormous, and growing all the time.

And it is compounded by Europe's other chronic predicament, immigration. The proportion varies sharply: in France, anywhere between 50% and 80% of those using homeless services are immigrants; in Germany, it's just over 10%. These calculations only include migrants who are legally entitled to state assistance, but social researchers say illegal immigrants tend not to remain homeless very long. With no access to social welfare, they have to find jobs and accommodation to get off the streets, where they risk being caught and sent back home. It doesn't follow that immigrants who use homeless services are welfare slobs, lacking the incentive or will to break out of their dependence on the state. Many are homeless because they are discriminated against, in jobs and housing — or simply can't afford Europe's high cost of living.

But economics is only a small part of the problem. Unlike Eastern Europe and Russia, where homelessness is mostly a result of massive unemployment, the profile of Western Europe's homeless is much more complicated. A large proportion owe their condition to nonfinancial difficulties — alcoholism or drug addiction, mental disabilities, or trauma brought on by physical or psychological abuse. "We're talking about people who have been raped or severely beaten up as children, who've had bad marriages, lost loved ones, been thrown out of jobs or suffered other kinds of indignities," says Dublin social-research consultant Brian Harvey. "Homelessness is the end of the line in a series of personal disasters."

Christelle won't say what her personal disaster has been, or why she recently left her Algerian-born husband. At the Cite Saint Martin in Paris, an aid center and shelter near the Bastille run by the Association of Catholic Relief Shelters, Christelle (not her real name), 23, tries to keep her three-year-old daughter Julie entertained. Sitting in the playroom, there are different toys everywhere, and after sampling building blocks and crayons, Julie (also not the child's real name), wearing a red dress with a matching red bow in her curly brown hair, finally settles down with a small plastic truck, driving herself around the room to her own engine sounds. Christelle smiles, but sees beyond the happiness that a well-stocked playroom can provide. "The hard part is living communally," she says, relaxing in a sweatshirt and jeans — a comfy outfit thrown on after a day out looking for work. "For my daughter, it's difficult. I don't want her to become too accustomed to this situation."

 

Christelle, originally from northwestern France, moved into the shelter last September. According to the government's rules, she can only stay six months, which means she has until early March to find a new place to stay. Christelle is worried about the deadline, but is optimistic that she will have a job and an apartment by the spring. She hopes to get a divorce soon. With no friends in Paris and what appears to be a distant relationship with her family, who live several hours away, she contacted a social-aid worker who placed her at the Cite Saint Martin.

Resume in hand, she goes out each day looking for work. "I'd like a job in the hospitality industry, maybe as a receptionist," she says. But the job market is tight, and so she tries to hide her circumstances from potential employers, to duck prejudice against homeless people. "Nobody knows I don't have my own home, and I don't tell them," she says. That includes her estranged husband and her family; when she calls her parents, she lets them believe she has a place.

The music of Jennifer Lopez plays on the radio in the background, and Christelle says what she'd really like to do is live in the U.S. "I dream of Los Angeles," she says. "Things just seem better there." But for the moment, it's enough to care for her daughter and keep going out everyday looking for a job. "When I was young I would see people from shelters and thought it must not be easy to live like that, without a place of your own," she says with an awkward smile. "Now I know."

It's hard to know what traumas torment the short, stocky man slouched on a bench in Berlin's Hallesches Tor metro station at 11 p.m. one freezing winter night. He is plainly drunk, the smell of alcohol on his breath mingling with the stench from his urine-stained trousers. His blue eyes are bloodshot, his brown beard mottled. Asked for his name by a worker from the Berlin City Mission, he comes up with "O'Brien," although he's plainly German. He agrees to be taken to a shelter run by the Mission, which is sponsored by the Lutheran Church. When he gets there, he is searched for weapons, drugs and alcohol, and is required to surrender the black table lamp that he jealously guards at all times. He's then handed a bowl of hot soup, but screams out that he wants spaghetti. After some soothing words from the kitchen volunteers, he begrudgingly takes his bowl of soup to the almost-empty dining room, where several other guests have passed out under the tables.

A drunken tantrum is nothing more than a small nuisance for those who work with the homeless. Volunteers routinely encounter hostility, even violence, particularly from rough sleepers. "Those who've been on the streets for years get very uncomfortable when they are suddenly in a confined space, surrounded by lots of people," says Susan Fallis, project manager at a West London hostel, one of several run by the charity Broadway. "They are suspicious and angry, and get put off by even the simplest things."

Fallis' hostel is a relatively rare "wet" house: it allows booze (but not drugs) on the premises, on the principle that alcoholics would otherwise remain in the streets and beyond help's reach. Residents are provided hot meals, clean bedrooms, even well-being services like foot massages and aromatherapy. They are also encouraged to sign up for government detox programs. The hostel receives around €450 a week from the British government for each of its 30-odd residents. It also charges them a small fee, about €12.50 a week, for things like electricity, water and gas. It's a pittance they can afford to pay from their welfare checks. The small fee has another function: it is meant to help residents deal with simple real-world chores like paying bills. "They need to take small steps toward a normal life," Fallis says.

 

Both O'Brien and Ion are back on the streets now. Few rough sleepers ever last more than a couple of months in a shelter: their addictions and psychological problems won't be solved by hot meals and a roof over their heads. And their welfare checks, more often than not, only feed their addictions.

And yet europe's traditional response to homelessness has been to throw money at the problem, in the form of benefits. Unemployed single French citizens over the age of 25 and with no dependents are entitled to an allowance of around €400 a month. In Britain, people can claim €50-80 per week in unemployment benefits, and in Germany, the homeless are entitled to a subsistence allowance of €9 a day, which they can pick up at the social-welfare office. Social researchers know that "it's not a matter of giving someone several hundred euros a month and expecting them to find a place to live and make a life," says Martin Hirsch, president of Emmaόs France, a voluntary organization that runs shelters and provides housing across the country. "Money isn't enough for people with problems — physical, psychological — who can't take care of themselves."

Can Europe fix its homelessness problem? Not before it acknowledges that the problem is graver than officials currently admit. Social researchers say an accurate count of the homeless is as crucial as an accurate national census. Central governments would be smart to pass that job on to provincial and local authorities; they're closer to the problem and better able to quantify it. "There's plenty of evidence that local authorities are more responsive to the homeless than central governments," says Dublin consultant Harvey. This is borne out by the experience of Germany's lδnder, or states, which under German law are responsible for dealing with homelessness. As a result, they provide the most accurate representation of the problem among the major European countries: after peaking at 590,000 in 1997, the number of homeless Germans fell to 390,000 in 2000. The decline also suggests that local authorities do a better job, not just of counting the homeless but of getting them off the streets.

Other countries are coming around to the idea that workable solutions for homelessness must come from local authorities. England's Homelessness Act came into force last summer, requiring each of its 354 local-government housing authorities to produce a homelessness strategy by mid-2003. Then the real work can begin.

So far, the response from voluntary groups has been mixed. Alastair Jackson, director of policy for the housing organization Shelter, says the law has already "improved the quality of help" available to homeless people. But he and others worry that the central government hasn't yet explained how the local authorities will cooperate and coordinate their work with national bodies, voluntary groups and policymakers. And yes, European governments will still need to throw more money at the problem — to pay for more affordable housing, more shelters, and for the detox, rehab and therapies many homeless people need to overcome their personal demons.

Big Sid doesn't think that's possible. It's two weeks since that bender with the hard cider, and he's back on the streets of London after a trip to the beach resort of Brighton. The begging there was good, and he shows off a bottle of cheap whiskey tucked into his sack. But that's for a special occasion; for now he's still drinking cider. And he's still telling tall tales, but they've taken on a much darker tone, with him playing the victim instead of the hero. The villains, inevitably, are representatives of the state, from doctors in public hospitals who don't give him the medicines he wants to policemen who beat him up for no reason. "Governments hurt people," he says, recounting years of abuse he endured — or did he? — in a state-run correctional school 20 years ago. "Government programs are all short-term, and nothing good comes of short-term." Finding long-term solutions for the Big Sids of Europe may be the hardest part of dealing with homelessness.

With reporting by Theunis Bates and Adam Smith/London, Grant Rosenberg/Paris and Regine Wosnitza/Berlin