The last couple of weeks more and more articles have been popping up in the Dutch media about a camp of homeless people on the outskirts of Utrecht, the fourth largest city of the Netherlands. Reportedly, these people are not Dutch, but mostly Eastern-European. This made me wonder, is this also the case for the homeless inhabitants of Amsterdam? I rarely see homeless people in the streets of Amsterdam, so this might not the case here, I naively thought. To learn more, I signed up as a volunteer for the Amsterdam Salvation Army (“Leger des Heils”).
I signed up 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, Romaniaand Hungary. A few clients came from Spain, Germanyand 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. Last month the minister of Health (Minister Veldhuijzen van Zanten) asked the national association of municipalities to reconsider this rule. Today, 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.
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 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?