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Homelessness In A Welfare State: Perspectives From Copenhagen

As the workday draws to a close in downtown Copenhagen, commuters flood the streets and trains, making their ways home for the evening. Signs that Denmark is dedicated to maintaining its tradition of a welfare state are everywhere: accessible transportation, a rehabilitation-focused criminal justice program, clinics and hospitals practicing socialized medicine. Yet in paradoxical contrast to the social values exuded by the Danish welfare state and the scene of workers rushing home to their families are those who will remain in the streets of Copenhagen after the commuters have gone home for the evening: Copenhagen's homeless citizens.

Danish society has been fiercely committed to its welfare state since the 1930s. Danes contribute relatively high percentages of their incomes to support programs that aim to minimize socio-economic inequality. As Danes are heavily invested in these social programs, they insist upon a democratic consensus approach to steering their future so it would seem that public opinion plays an important role in determining the social policy agenda.

The homeless population has not been caught by the Danish social security net. Homelessness is not easily defined, but can include individuals living in the streets, in shelters, in temporary arrangements with social contacts, or in various institutions including prisons and hospitals. The number of homeless people is not well documented and attempts at making an accurate census of homeless persons are complicated. Experts estimate that there are 10,000 to 15,000 homeless people in Denmark, about half of which live in the Copenhagen metropolitan area. The number of homeless persons continues to increase, but as the city has changed and areas in which the homeless used to "hide" have disappeared, the increase in the number of visibly homeless people has outpaced the growth in the homeless population.

How are homeless persons marginalized in a society seemingly so devoted to social welfare? Interviews were conducted with a variety of citizens of the greater Copenhagen area in search of perspectives on the matter. Twelve persons in Hellerup, twelve near Central Station, seven homeless individuals, and two service providers who work with homeless persons. The Hellerup and Central Station area interviewees were randomly selected and approached on the street. This collection of responses provides some insight into the public response to homelessness in a welfare state.


Hellerup is a community just north of Copenhagen proper, bordered on the east by the sea. Its aesthetic beauty and proximity to Copenhagen make it a desirable and expensive neighborhood. Those interviewed were evenly split in gender and well distributed in age. 

The interviewees' estimations of the size of the homeless population ranged from 500 to 5,000, and there was disagreement as to whether those who live in shelters are really "homeless". More interesting was the consensus on the causes of homelessness. One individual asserted: "A great deal choose it themselves - nobody is forced. They simply choose to withdraw from society." Each of the twelve participants indicated in their responses that a "majority" or "great deal" of homeless persons choose homelessness as a lifestyle. Nearly half the respondents thought this was true for as much as ninety percent of the homeless population. One interviewee said that these people end up on the street because they choose to be in "bad company - therefore, the state should and can not do anything about it." No one mentioned substance abuse as a possible causation, and when asked if they thought there were individuals with mental disorders living on the streets, the respondents were doubtful: "No, I don't think so, no.", "If so, it is only very few" or "No, hopefully they are in the institutions."

The Hellerup interviewees were overall highly homogeneous in their responses. All reported that they do not know a person who is, or has ever been, homeless, nor have they ever spoken with one.

Central Station Area

In the center of Copenhagen, interviews were conducted in the area around Central Station, including Rådhuspladsen (City Hall Square), Hovedbanegården (the train station itself), and Istedgade (street in red light district). Five women and seven men were interviewed, with a distribution of ages but overrepresentation of those in their thirties. The group included students, laborers, persons on social security, social workers and office employees.  

In comparison with the Hellerup interviewee pool, these respondents were more diverse in their perspectives on homelessness issues. The participants' estimations of the population of homeless persons ranged from 5,000 to a "couple hundred thousand". About half expressed the notion that homelessness is a chosen lifestyle most of the time: "Some of them are full of obstinacy toward society."  The rest indicated that this is only the case for a tiny number of the homeless people. They noted substance abuse and being "let down" by the state as more likely causes: "I think it is so unfair. None of these people like this way of living. They have been let down by the state." Or: "I think it is too bad.  We are not supporting our own sons and daughters, but invite all these strangers into the country." A few respondents said that at least some homeless individuals have mental disorders.


The professionals who provide services to Copenhagen’s homeless persons view the homeless population in a seemingly different way: Not as a problem, but as people faced with problems. Two Copenhagen-based homelessness services professionals shared their expertise and observations: Alice Pedersen and Preben Brandt. Pedersen is a social worker at Kirkens Korshær, a humanitarian organization affiliated with the Danish Folk Church (the state church). Kirkens Korshær serves the most marginalized members of society through shelters, psychological and substance abuse treatment, and other projects. Brandt is a psychiatrist who has devoted the past 23 years to working with homeless persons and homelessness issues. He heads "Project Outside," a project dealing with both practical and research aspects of homelessness in Denmark. 

Brandt explained that homelessness is rooted in exclusion. For ninety percent of Denmark’s homeless population, he estimated, the exclusion started in early childhood. Social development is distorted by a family life in which the needs of the child are marginalized by violence or other abuse, substance abuse, illness or other factors in the familial environment. These early experiences initiate a pattern of exclusion and defeat that repeats itself throughout their lives because they have not been socialized or have not learned the social skills necessary to function properly in society. In their adolescence and adulthood, these individuals may not process adversity in socially acceptable manners. According to Brandt and Pedersen, most - but not all - homeless people in Copenhagen either abuse drugs, abuse alcohol, have mental disorders, or any combination of the three. Pedersen noted that there is a social hierarchy within the homeless population itself with alcoholics at the top, those with mental disorders at the bottom, and those who abuse drugs in the middle.

Brandt posited that homeless individuals are impoverished in two ways: They are economically disadvantaged, but perhaps more importantly, they lack social resources. Impaired social skills, communication skills, and an unstable or nonexistent social network makes negotiating the demands of “normal” life nearly impossible. The experience of being homeless may further denigrate one's social skills and mental and physical health, thereby exacerbating the individual's difficulties and removing the individual further from a "normal" life. Tasks such as maintaining an apartment, keeping up with bills, and arriving for an appointment at the set time require more social competency than they may have. Pedersen said that while many of them are on waiting lists for apartments and would love to have a place to stay, unfortunately, few of them would be able to manage it on their own.

Brandt explained that invisible forces restrict the choices of homeless people - the public does not see them, so they do not understand the “choices” of the homeless. For example, it is common knowledge in Denmark and explicitly stated in Danish law that nearly everyone is entitled to social security, but Brandt estimates that ten percent of homeless persons do not collect such monies. Members of the public may see this as evidence of a decision to exclude themselves from society. It may be the case, rather, that the municipalities are sending them back and forth between offices, trying to pass the financial and bureaucratic responsibility on to another municipality. Alternatively, the individual may lack the social skills to request their social security money in a socially acceptable fashion or are unaware of their rights, as will be discussed in the next section. What the public tends to misunderstand is that although services, such as social security and medical care, are available, they are not generally accessible to the homeless population due to limited social skills for navigating the welfare state or logistical incompatibilities. While nearly everyone is eligible for social security, there are invisible walls that exclude the homeless from mainstream society. Perhaps a more widespread understanding of these obstacles would alter perceptions of homelessness as a lifestyle choice.

The homeless are excluded from society, Brandt and Pedersen explained. The question of agency then asks who excludes them? Brandt answered that all members of mainstream society exclude or support exclusion in some way and that it makes some people angry to be implicated in this way. When the homeless are viewed as self-excluding, it is much easier to relieve oneself of responsibility for their social status. 

However, Brandt argued, there is a conflict between the interests of full inclusion and a functional, modern society. He offered this example: A doctor in Denmark's socialized medicine system sees a heterogeneous mix of patients, some of which are homeless, by appointment only. The majority of the doctor's patients who can make and keep appointments prefer the "by appointment" system so they can show up for their allotted time rather than spend hours in a waiting room. In contrast, the need to make an appointment and come at the set time is a barrier to proper health care for homeless individuals because telephone access is necessary to make the appointment and the social competency to arrive on time is necessary to keep the appointment - a competency that Brandt says is rare within the homeless population. To improve the accessibility of medical care to the homeless population, the doctor could go to an open hours or "first come, first serve" format, though this would be inconvenient for other patients and cause inefficiency. The choice to continue with a scheduled appointment format is a manner of excluding the homeless.

Brandt and Pedersen shared the opinion that it is not possible to eradicate homelessness; there will always be persons excluded from society. However, there must be better political and social opportunities so they can have a better quality of life. Services in centralized, accessible locations may improve utilization and improve quality of life. Services could include a visiting doctor with open hours, visits from a representative of the municipality to help register people for the social security to which they are entitled, an employment project, and substance abuse rehabilitation services. Additionally, preventative measures can be taken in order to minimize the number of children who do not have the opportunity to develop socially in a "normalized" manner. This may include programs for at-risk children or reconsideration of family welfare services with child welfare as the primary consideration, rather than parental rights.

Both professionals viewed the NIMBY principle - "Not in my backyard" - as prevalent and problematic in the arena of homelessness issues. What municipality pays social security benefits, where a new homeless shelter is located - citizens just want it to be someone else's problem. This appears to be supported by the Hellerup and Central Station interviewees who said that a homeless person's situation is their own fault: They indicate that it is the problem of the homeless individual and that they are in no way involved.

Homeless Persons

Interviews with homeless individuals were conducted on the street near Rådhuspladsen and at Nørreport Station. Only individuals with signs that said "hjemløs" (“homeless”) were initially approached, as to avoid making false assumptions. Others often joined the discussion. Though speaking with individuals at shelters may have been more productive and may have added another dimension to the perspectives of homeless persons, the authors were not comfortable invading people's homes or diminishing the dignity that these establishments afford their residents for the purposes of this essay. Additionally, most shelters in Copenhagen do not allow reporters to speak with their residents for the same reasons.

Of the seven individuals spoken with, only one was female and one was of a minority ethnicity. Most were in their thirties and forties. All but one interview was conducted in Danish; the other was conducted in both Danish and English. If the interview was conducted while the interviewee was actively "begging" (interviewees' term for sitting with a cup for donations and a "hjemløs" sign), a small amount of money was given for their time. Hansi, Dennis, Birger, and Luffe consented to be quoted and mentioned by their first names.

All interviewees told stories of their lives deteriorating from "normal" to homelessness.  Hansi explained: "Becoming homeless is the culmination of a long process of falling apart. One by one everything simply falls apart."

They agreed that homelessness is not a lifestyle choice. Dennis said: "This is not a way of living. I have worked all my life. Now I am a beggar. Who would dream of that?" Luffe provided another insight: "Most people do not [become homeless] out of their own free will. There are some of us who probably prefer this way of living - but that's not because it's very luxurious, but rather because we do not know of an alternative." Birger said: "Nobody has ever wished to be homeless. I probably know around 200 homeless people in Copenhagen and I have never heard a single one claiming that being homeless is something they wish or strive for. As a homeless person, you do not have a real life, not an identity." Hansi summed it up by saying: "Nobody wants to live like this. No one I know at least."

Within the homeless population, a disagreement emerged during the interviews as to whether an individual can receive social security payments if they do not have an address. Preben Brandt clarified that everyone, with or without an address, is entitled to social security benefits. A law was passed in recent years making it legal to deny social security payments in some instances, but homelessness was not one of them. Pedersen had worked in a municipality office and was aware of some municipality administrators telling troublesome homeless persons that they were ineligible without an address, though she believes that no longer occurs. Today the problem is different, she explained: "According to the latest social law, if you refuse a job offer more than three times you lose your right to social security. And these people are scared about being activated in a job, which they know they will never succeed in." But the myth seems to continue that without an address you cannot receive social security. Hansi and Birger said they were not receiving social security because they did not have addresses. Dennis, however, said: "Everybody has the right to social security. The law says so. It does not matter if you have an address or not. That is just something that [municipality administrators] tell you. Some of them are bad people… if you knock over a table at the municipality office, they will tell you you are not allowed to receive social security without a place to live. But that is not true. It is my legal right."

Thoughts shared by the homeless individuals reflected Brandt and Pedersen's theories about social skills and the homeless population. Homeless persons reported being unable to navigate "the system". Dennis said: "Some homeless people simply do not have the energy to go to [the municipality office] and do the paperwork [required to get social security benefits]. They can not cope with it. It is far too difficult. So they stay [here] and try to get money from somewhere else."

Hansi reported: "I could not cope with my whole situation. When you are really down it is impossible to cope with all the bureaucracy. I am just a number for them - and I am not able to handle all the paperwork. So that is how I ended up here. I think that this is very typical for people on the street. I feel that I am kicked out of the system - and by the system."

Luffe explained: "The system is too complex if you can not find a job or a place to live. I mean, for normal people it is not a problem to handle these things, but if you are mentally ill, an abuser of some sort or simply just can not manage the normalized Danish life it is simply too complicated. Too many decisions at the municipality office. A strong feeling of being a client, a number, a loser… The only thing I know for sure is that I simply can not manage how to get out of this. The bad and scary things about trying to get out of this are not worth the notion of how it will be afterwards. So we stick to it."


Homelessness is a complex phenomenon and the sources of this social issue are not easily identified. Brandt, Pedersen, and the homeless interviewees shared the following insights:

Homelessness is the culmination of a series of defeats over one's lifetime rather than the result of a single event.

Homelessness is not a housing or financial problem, but a condition generally caused by a lack of social competencies.

The homeless population is continually exposed to social demands and expectations to which they are not prepared to respond. They may not have the capabilities to fulfill cultural norms, such as maintaining a job or constantly displaying motivation and stability.

The process of social exclusion of the homeless population is a result of omnipresent and invisible social forces.

Professionals and homeless individuals interviewed agreed that only a tiny minority of the homeless population prefers to remain homeless. Most homeless people do not perceive homelessness as a desirable lifestyle and often dream about another way of living. 

In contrast, the majority of the twenty-four interviewees in Hellerup and near Central Station were convinced that homelessness is a chosen lifestyle and that homeless people voluntarily choose to live their “abnormal” excluded lives. These convictions are perhaps rooted in the belief that the system is in fact working and that if homeless individuals wanted to be off the streets, they would collect the social security to which they are entitled and "get themselves together". 

The professionals and homeless persons disagreed because:

Some homeless people do not have the courage and abilities to actually go to the social security office to make this request.

Many homeless individuals fear being forced into a "activation" (job training) program.

Some social security officers have told "troublesome" homeless people that they were not entitled to social security and were therefore denied their benefits.

Homelessness deals with the lack of social rather than economic resources.

The interview process has suggested a discrepancy in perceptions of homelessness between members of the general public and the homeless individuals and those who work with them. Held against the testimonies of the latter group, the romanticized notion of rejecting social norms and choosing to live of homelessness would appear to be exposed as a myth.

If it is in fact the case that the notion of chosen homelessness is a myth, what purpose does such a myth fulfill? Perhaps believing that it is a chosen lifestyle allows one more easily to dismiss notions about inequality and the inhumanity of the situation, thereby relieving one from the burden of guilt. But this explanation is not unique to Denmark - it could be the case in any society.  

Particular to Denmark is the pride and heavy investment in the Danish welfare state and the advanced level of human rights that it affords overall, creating a self-image of Danish society as the perfect welfare state. Yet returning to the bustling scene of Copenhagen at day's end with commuters hurrying home, this self-image is marred by the existence of a homeless population. The homeless population challenges the Danish social identity and the existence of obvious holes in the Danish welfare net are denied by the many Danes, claiming that free choice of lifestyle is the main source of homelessness. 



Preben Brandt, Director, "Project Outside." 

Alice Pedersen, Social Worker, Kirkens Korshær. 

Hansi, homeless individual. 

Birger, homeless individual. 

Dennis, homeless individual. 

Luffe, homeless individual. 

Three additional homeless persons, request for anonymity respected. 

Twelve individuals on Strandvejen in Hellerup.

Twelve individuals near Central Station in Copenhagen.

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Denmark Denmark 2001


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