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Finding jewels in the gutter
by Ana Swierstra Bie

Arne Skarpsno and his wife, Gerd, have spent eleven years making meals and distributing them to those living on the streets of Oslo, Norway - and have  found a source of love like no other.

Eleven years ago pensioner Arne Skarpsno discovered that while institutions were closed for the summer many drug addicts, glue-sniffers, prostitutes, alcoholics and other homeless people were actually starving on the streets of Oslo. The impulse to do something was strong. Other people went off on holiday, but Arne and his wife Gerd put their camping table and lots of home-made sandwiches in the car and drove to a place in the city where addicts usually hang out. There they set up their table and offered bread and lemonade to the homeless. Arne was so eager to do something that he didn’t even have the sense to be afraid. After some initial scepticism, the street-children quickly realized that here was someone who sincerely wanted to help, without asking anything in return.

During that summer they made about 4,000 sandwiches, and when the institutions reopened Arne had no inclination to stop the work. The drug-addicts, prostitutes, criminals, homeless and alcoholics had become 'their kids' - whatever their ages.

The couple spent all their time and pension money on the task; Arne was out on the streets gaining trust, making friends, making his telephone number available to all the street-children. They could phone any time. Gerd was at home answering the phone and making sandwiches. Arne found new ways to meet the needs he saw. He started contacting food companies to ask for donations.

Warmth and caring

"Imagine me, the first time I sat down by the phone to beg!" he says. Some had nothing to give, but others donated generously. Their home was crammed with boxes of food and clothing. All was packed in bags and delivered to those in need. Just as important as food and clothing was the need for warmth and caring. Arne and Gerd listened and comforted; 24 hours a day the phone was answered. Nobody ever got through to the answer-machine. Their home was always open - if anyone called saying they couldn’t take this life any more Arne would get in the car and go and collect them. He doesn’t know how often he and his wife saved someone’s life, carried them upstairs for a meal and a shower and clean clothes, giving them a place on the sofa to sleep off the drugs. Many stayed with them for longer periods.

"These are people who steal and cheat. I have seen a completely different side of them. They have so much beauty inside, but they don’t see it themselves."

Arne and Gerd also arranged Christmas celebrations for the children, and one year, when asked where he was going to celebrate his next Christmas, Arne promptly answered: "In the City Hall!" - almost to his own surprise. But he liked the idea and after some prodding he met the right person who latched onto the idea. When Christmas arrived the doors of the City Hall in Oslo were opened for the homeless - tables laid with damask and silver, like when kings visit.

That first year quite a few people were nervous about having the City Hall filled with junkies - but now they are very proud, Arne says. They say it’s the best thing that happens in that building and the annual Christmas celebration has become a well-established tradition.

Coming from a poor family himself, and having spent many years working for the rich, Arne knows the extremes of society. The inequalities between rich and poor always upset him: "Injustice makes me very angry. The greedy, grasping mentality, the rich taking from the poor. People are so busy, only concerned about themselves, the only thing that matters is to acquire the finest, the newest.... It is all just pretentiousness."

Arne admires Jesus. Most Christians, however, he finds rather hypocritical. "Jesus said: ‘Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you do for me,’ but many priests and so-called Christians are just concerned with ‘saving’ people. I am somewhat of a thorn in their flesh because I do what they ought to have done. The last thing I want to do is to cram Jesus down somebody’s throat, so I don’t preach to anyone, and I have no ambitions of getting anyone off the drugs. These kids come from all walks of society. They are just normal youth who got a difficult start. Some of them never really had a chance. We give them what they never got. We give them love."

"Some people are irritated with me; their attitude is: ‘Why can’t you just let them die? Then we’ll have one problem less.’" But to Arne his boys and girls are jewels, and that is what he calls them.

"My wish is to make their lives a little easier while they are still alive. They know I do this for free, because I love them. They also know I know what it’s like; in my younger days I abused alcohol and pills. You cannot fool these people, and they don’t fool me either. But if I want to find real love, I find it in the streets, not in the church."

Now the sandwiches and lemonade are delivered in trailers and Arne Skarspno, also called 'the father of the street-children', is a household name for many Norwegians. He redistributes goods worth £2-3 million (about $3.5 to $5 million). The extent and efficiency of the redistribution is impressive. Arne uses media quite consciously to promote the cause. He is on good terms with both politicians and heads of large businesses.

"The media make the need known; business people respond with donations, and I am the errand boy." When he heard that excess food products were being dumped he called the newspaper and they covered the story. The dumping soon stopped and Arne got the food for redistribution.

Thirty to 40 companies regularly donate food and other goods. The municipality has made a spacious locality available for storage, and friends and volunteers help with the work of packing and delivering food and clothes. A car company sponsors his van, people give clothes and money, and a shoe-shop provides the street-children with new shoes.

Arne regularly delivers food to 18 hostels with 40-60 people in each, as well as several crisis shelters for mothers and children, gospel-centres, prisons, night-homes for prostitutes, and various institutions and help organizations in a number of towns. If there is too much food he gives it to kindergartens, and even the horses in nearby stables get their share of bread.

Arne and Gerd receive no payment for their work: "A father should not receive money for helping his children," he says. "We are just parents, and nothing is lost in administration costs. The love I get on the streets is my salary."

Over the years they have seen street life become tougher and more violent, and they have attended many funerals - often young lives ended by overdoses. Gerd is ill and no longer able to do the work she used to do; and some years ago Arne collapsed from sheer exhaustion but he still feels compelled to go on. "Some times when I am feeling tired, it could seem easy just to stay at home, drink coffee and watch television. But I know there is still more work to do, and when I come home late after having finished my tasks for the day, the feeling I have inside my heart then I wouldn’t swap for anything. It is really a privilege to be allowed to do this work."

From the October 1998 issue of Share International

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