Amsterdam homeless

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 8 Dec 1997 21:12:00 -0800 (PST)


FWD "Down and out in Amsterdam, just for one day" by Christine Lucassen

AMSTERDAM, Nov 11, 1997 - They say that anyone can lose their home,
but most people cannot imagine what it's like to live on the streets.

Dutch voluntary organisation Voila wants to put that right, offering
curious people a glimpse into the lives of Amsterdam's homeless for
45 guilders ($23) a turn.

The ground-breaking scheme, introduced in February, enables
``ordinary'' people to spend one day on the streets, with the money
raised going towards homeless centres and running the programme.

``Social workers and volunteers need to know what it's like to be on
the other side,'' says Roel Krikke, a psychotherapist who works as a
volunteer at Voila.

Berlin has been quick to imitate Voila's idea and New York is planning
a similar initiative.

The day starts with a short introduction -- information on how many
people live on Amsterdam's streets, how they ended up there and how
they get through each 24 hours.

Depending on the criteria used, there are between 3,000 and 7,000
people living rough in the Dutch capital, a city of 720,000.

The number changes with the seasons, with penniless tourists swelling
the homeless population in the summer but hiking back home once
the chill wind starts to blow in from the North Sea.

Around 1,720 beds, paid and free, are available for those
Amsterdammers who have nowhere else to go.

VOLUNTEERS HAND OVER PERSONAL BELONGINGS

Once the Voila guinea pigs, usually a group of two to six people, have
digested the basic information, it is time to confront the reality of life at
the margins of society.

They hand over their keys, money and all other personal belongings
and set off to find a place to spend the night.

A genuine street person keeps a protective eye on the novices and
offers a few hints. But basically the volunteers have to strike out on
their own.

``Most people don't have the faintest idea what to do or where to go,''
says Ferry van Veen, who lost his home in January. Ferry enjoys his
involvement in the Voila walks, which brings him into contact with
new people.

He tells the newcomers a place nearby offers free cups of tea and
sometimes advice.

In a basement room, people of all ages, most of them men and many
neatly dressed, sip tea. Some read, others chat or play a game of
draughts. Many just sit deep in thought.

``It's very, very difficult to find a place to sleep. But you don't need it
-- you don't get any sleep on the street,'' reasoned one young woman.

One day spent with the homeless is not enough to gain a genuine
insight, she argues.

``You won't understand what it's like until you wake up without shoes
for the umpteenth time.''

BEDS TAKEN LONG BEFORE MIDDAY

Obtaining a free bed in one of Amsterdam's social or religious
institutions is too much of a hassle for her.

``You have to run from one side of the city to the other. I don't have
time for that, I have to earn my keep,'' she said, before walking off to
get clean clothes from the volunteers.

A man sitting nearby said he managed to scrape together enough cash
to share a cheap hotel room with two other men.

``With my unemployment benefit and the money I earn selling the Z
(street magazine), I can just afford it,'' he said.

A young Moroccan man revealed that he sleeps under the sails of small
boats on Amsterdam's canals and harbour.

At the Salvation Army, where guide Ferry collects his mail, the beds
are taken long before noon. ``You have to be here much earlier. Before
nine o'clock,'' a woman helper said.

Men can check in until late evening at a hostel on the other side of
town. Women can try their luck at the Sisters of Charity, she added.

A determined and well-organised person can get up to 18 free nights a
month in Amsterdam, moving around between the various religious,
municipal and other hostels.

``You can pay 20 guilders a night for a shelter or go to another city for
the remainder of the month,'' says Ferry.

HOMELESSNESS IS NO JOKE, 'TOURISTS' FIND

A day spent outside is tiring and long.

Ferry leads the Voila group from a free coffeehouse to a free teahouse,
sticking to a meticulous schedule. In between, there is an opportunity
to warm up watching videos in a big department store.

The Sisters Augustinessen hand out one free sandwich to each novice
-- not enough to ward off creeping cold and hunger. Some homeless
people show the group kindness and tell jokes. A woman in a church
shares her cigarettes.

Sellers of the street's Z-magazine display their backpacks loaded with
newspapers while the religious talk about God.

Police officers stop for a friendly chat.

At 5 p.m., after seven hours of almost solid walking, the bedraggled
volunteer group is glad to return to the Voila centre and reclaim
belongings.

The homeless-for-a-day discuss their experiences. They have
discovered most of those sleeping rough are not fools, drunks or
thieves. They have just had some bad luck.

The Voila project has been well received. Some 200 volunteers have
spent a day walking the streets of Amsterdam since February.

In the early days, most participants were journalists. Since then social
workers, students and people with a personal interest have joined their
numbers.

``There's a lot of interest in the survival weekends we intend to start
soon. These will give people a better impression of what it's like,''
said Voila's Krikke.

END FORWARD