During June of 2017, Danish parliament passed an anti-begging measure to discourage panhandling. The following month, within a fourteen-day span, five people were arrested in Copenhagen by plainclothes officers for begging in public places. When my urban design professor mentioned to us during the first week of classes that panhandling is illegal in Copenhagen, I couldn’t believe there was even a homelessness problem to begin with. Coming from the United States, I had understood the Danish welfare state to be a relative utopia of democratic socialist policy without knowing how that might manifest in daily life. Even after going to Denmark and learning more about how the welfare state operates, it strikes me as a surprising struggle for a country with a famously tightly woven social safety net.
It doesn’t take much digging, however, to notice the increasingly complex approach to issues of squatting and homelessness in Copenhagen. As more central neighborhoods get tapped for redevelopment and public space is further commodified, homelessness is being relegated further away from the public realm. Local ignorance regarding homelessness in Denmark makes the decriminalization of homelessness and poverty unlikely, too. A study on perceptions of homelessness in Copenhagen and one of its suburbs identified a theme in residents’ understanding of homelessness: The Danish government provides assistance to those in need, so why wouldn’t someone take it if they had to? Homelessness must be a choice.
Generally, those most removed from daily urban life (in this case, residents of the more expensive and suburban Hellerup neighborhood) were more likely to hold such convictions. The interviewees from Copenhagen proper had more varied responses, with a more sympathetic bent. What the study found was, unsurprisingly, that homelessness is not a choice but rather a matter of repeated poor circumstances that strip away a person’s economic and social resources. This can make it difficult for folks struggling with homelessness, often along with addiction or mental illness, to go through the official steps to claim their benefits. They may not even know they are qualified for the benefits in the first place. And even then, there have been reports of government employees turning people away for their behavior while visiting the office to fill out paperwork.
Clearly, there are social and bureaucratic barriers that still keep those experiencing homelessness from getting the help they need. This condition is not unique to any city. Thankfully, Denmark has such a strong welfare system that homelessness is unlikely to reach the proportions it has in the United States. The criminalization of poverty and need, however, does nothing to help the most vulnerable residents in any city. Denmark’s recent anti-squatting laws are only the most recent legal apparatus developed for clearing urban space for more desirable occupants; but it is certainly not their first or most dramatic attempt to do so (for example, the destruction of the Youth House, which involved police violence and mass arrests). As redevelopment and gentrification continue here and in cities around the world, protection and resources for those least likely to benefit should remain a priority.
Public space is not public if it isn’t for everyone.