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Homelessness in Holland

A comparison between how the Dutch government and volunteers are addressing homelessness in Holland. 

It was not until 1995 that the Dutch government officially acknowledged that poverty existed in Holland, one of the most affluent nations of the world. Before that time, poverty and one of its many faces, homelessness, were non-issues on the political agenda.

Over the past few years, however, this has changed dramatically. Pressured by action groups, campaigns by well-known personalities and by media attention, the government made an important turn-about, resulting in the publication of its first official Poverty Report at the end of 1995. This initiated a lively national debate on the subject, culminating in annual Social Conferences organized by the Ministry of Social Affairs.

To keep a close eye on developments, the two largest statistical research organizations in Holland have joined forces to improve the quality of information on poverty. They initiated a ‘Poverty Monitor’ which periodically measures scale, duration, causes and effects of poverty-related issues.

According to this survey and other studies, the current number of homeless people in Holland is 40,000, out of a total population of 15.5 million. The majority of this group end up on the street due to financial, family, alcohol, drug or gambling problems. A smaller group consists of illegal immigrants and psychiatric patients, among whom are so-called ‘trash-can tramps’.

Decentralized policy

The Dutch government places responsibility for the homeless with 48 regional authorities who operate independently but within certain government guidelines. In 1998, they received $110 million in total to spend on specific social problems, only part of which sum was allocated to care for the homeless. Each can use these funds as it sees fit — on subsidies for homeless people, daily ‘allowances’, care centres and so on.

In the larger cities in particular there is a wide variety of care centres: publicly-funded and private pensions, crisis centres, houses for homeless youths, boarding houses and other institutions. Some of these provide shelter only during the day or the night; a few offer round-the-clock refuge. Most of them charge a fee, and those which are cheap or free are usually overbooked. As a result, many of the homeless find themselves sleeping out of doors after all.

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Mobile help

A unique service is provided by the ‘Soup Bus’, a mobile centre run by the Dutch Salvation Army. The bus drives around Amsterdam for five hours a day, locating people living on the street. Helped by other homeless people, by the police and local residents, the ‘Bus’ particularly looks out for people with psychiatric disorders. The Salvation Army provides food, clothing, blankets, medical care for the homeless and a place to sleep, and offers to accompany them to hospital or welfare appointments. In this way 700 new contacts are made each year.

Red tape

In order to apply for welfare benefits people must be registered at a permanent address within their residential area. For those who do not have such an address, or wander from city to city, this requirement cannot be met. Only one third of the homeless in Holland actually make use of welfare services, while others seeking help often get lost in a bureaucratic maze of rules and regulations. To help guide this group through the red tape and to defend their rights in other areas as well, various organizations have come into existence, such as the National Association for the Homeless.

In the past few years various efforts have been made by the Ministry of Social Affairs to smooth the path to obtaining welfare benefits. Some cities run programmes to locate and register homeless people, ensuring they receive their weekly or monthly allowances.

Though these kinds of initiatives show an increasing commitment from the Dutch government, many of the homeless organizations are still frustrated by the lack of permanent solutions. "This problem is still too remote from our daily lives," says an aid-worker from the Voilà Foundation in Amsterdam. "Everyone feels sorry for the homeless, but that’s where the identification stops." To try to remedy this, Voilà has found a practical approach to informing and involving the general public, and to countering prejudice against the homeless.

The foundation, run by ex-homeless people, allows groups, politicians, students, or any interested people to join a homeless person for one day or more and experience what it means to have no food, no papers, no home, no care, no future. "I was astounded," a young doctor commented after three days of her ‘City Jungle Survival’. "You’re a complete outcast when you have no money. It’s as simple as that. People act like you don’t exist; it’s scary." She is now working one day a week at the foundation, providing free medical assistance. Even a Dutch bishop was filmed for a television documentary spending two nights on the streets with the homeless, uncomfortably wrapped in a red sleeping-bag.

Longing for self-respect

John has been selling the Homeless Newspaper (one of eight different regional homeless papers in the Netherlands) all afternoon in a busy shopping-centre. Commenting on the recent focus on the homeless problem, he says: "It’s a good thing, I suppose, but it hasn’t changed much for me. I still don’t have a roof over my head, and I don’t seem to sell any more papers." Among the passing public, only a few stop to buy a copy from John — for two guilders ($1), half of which is his earnings.

"No, I don’t see much change yet in people’s attitude and understanding. Sometimes I’m haunted by that look on their faces that says: ‘It’s your own fault’. I don’t think too highly of myself as it is, and when I see them look that way I just want to disappear. Self-respect is what I long for most. Selling the Homeless Newspaper, I try to earn a little bit of that respect back. I now make just enough to pay for my own bed and meal. That way I keep myself on the straight and narrow. But no matter what they say, life on the street is tough, it slowly kills you. Once you lose your job, home, family, for whatever reason, you’re left out in the cold. It’s a matter of survival of the fittest." 

Homeless boat hotel

John is one of the 50 or so homeless who are regulars at the ‘homeless boat-hotel’ belonging to Rinus Vos, 10 minutes from the tall government buildings of The Hague. "I just got fed up with the slow action of the government," says Rinus Vos. "They try, but their endless regulations don’t reach those who need them. I just had to do something."

Rinus Vos, aged 58, founder of the Dutch organization World Peace at The Hague, has spent the greater part of his life helping people in need. Recently, he has focused his attention on the homeless. "For years," says Vos, "I roamed the streets myself, slept under bridges, in Belgium and France. I’ve polished shoes in New York, helped set up projects in Bangladesh, and joined Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Everywhere I went, I saw the same thing: well-off people afraid to lose what they have and wanting to have even more. I think that fear is one of the main causes of poverty.

"When I returned from Calcutta a few years ago," he relates, "it was winter. I read in a newspaper that people were freezing to death out on the street. I phoned the paper to ask where they were, and brought them back with me to my houseboat where they had a place to keep warm. Shortly afterwards, I started a soup-kitchen on the boat and more homeless people came.


"We do everything ourselves, cooking, washing, and so on. Food and shelter are free; we make 1,200 meals each month. Around 20 people sleep here every night, on the floor in sleeping-bags. They can stay on the boat all day if they wish — I don’t ask questions. There’s just one rule: no drinking or drugs. We want people to have a place of their own here, a kind of shared living-room. If someone has a problem, we’ll discuss it together, or I’ll help with paperwork. In the past year, some 15 people have been able to get their lives back on track.

"I do not receive any subsidies. A couple of times we almost had to close down through lack of funds, but so far, somehow, people turn up out of nowhere and bring us gifts, food, money — just enough to keep us going. We have plans to rebuild the boat and make it into an official ‘homeless boat hotel’ with 30 small bedrooms and some showers. We already have the license, but it may take a while as we are dependent on gifts," says Rinus Vos. "Do I do this out of the kindness of my heart? Are you kidding? I do it all for me. When people have nothing and you share a meal with them, you become family. It’s for my own satisfaction."

From the June 1999 issue of Share International.

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005