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Homelessness in Norway
Osman is not alone in his plight
by Ana Swierstra Bie

A report on increasing homelessness in Norway, causes and attempts to stem the tide against entrenched social/political indifference. 

Oslo, Norway
Norway’s population is 4.4 million and there are 1.4 homeless people per 1,000 inhabitants. Research in 1997 suggests that 6,200 people are registered as homeless, and although this figure has remained fairly constant in recent years it is a minimum calculation since it only includes people who have been in contact with organizations. Seventy-six per cent of the homeless are men, 24 per cent women. There are about 400 children living with homeless parents. Most homeless people (58 per cent) are to be found in Norway’s three largest cities; many have moved from towns and villages, many have arrived in the country as immigrants. Oslo has a population of 500,000 inhabitants of whom 2,500 are homeless.

Few actually live on the streets: many stay temporarily with friends or family, or live in institutions, prisons, hostels or shelters. Legally, the social services are obliged to provide temporary lodging for all who are unable to manage for themselves. Public rental homes are scarce and are only granted on very strict socio-medical-economic criteria. Waiting-time can be up to 1-2 years. The results can be devastating: families with children, for instance, can be placed in rooms in hostels which also accommodate drug addicts.

The housing policy in Norway after 1945 aimed to ensure that everyone could own his or her own home - this to be made possible by subsidized loans, municipal economic support and site-provision, price-regulation, and co-operative organizations building new housing. Today about 80 per cent of all households own their own homes. The rental sector accounts for less than 4 per cent of housing in Norway, as compared with Sweden, Denmark and Holland where 20-40 per cent of housing is public rental.

Since the late 1970s a gradual adaptation to the market-economy has led to an almost completely deregulated housing market with no significant social goals. The cost of renting or buying has exploded to exorbitant levels in areas under pressure, resulting in increasing numbers being marginalized simply because they cannot afford to live there. In Oslo there is a housing crisis with people moving into the city while no new housing is being built.

Who is most at risk? The elderly, living on minimum pensions, single parents, the unemployed, the disabled, students, young people, immigrants and refugees (who face an extra struggle against racial discrimination) and others in the low-income bracket. If the situation does not change Norway can only expect an increase in the numbers who cannot find affordable accommodation - as has already happened in many other European countries.

An interesting fact of homelessness in Norway is that about 9 per cent do not abuse drugs or alcohol, have no mental illness and have never lived in institutions. Who are they, and how is it that they have fallen into the homeless trap?

Osman is now 22; he came to Norway as a 6-year-old orphan from Somalia. At first he received help, support and education and now holds down a full-time job. For a number of years, until recently, he lived in an official housing scheme for young people, where one can stay for a maximum of three years. Osman does contract work, which automatically excludes him from the ‘credit-worthy class’; he is therefore unable to take a loan to buy his own flat. What are his options? Private renting, because social services can offer him nothing more than a room in a hostel. What’s wrong with that? Osman does not want to live in a room in a hostel. Why not? Apart from being expensive (a good market for speculators), they are nothing but drug- and violence-ridden ‘hell-holes’. His alternatives? In spite of numerous attempts to find a home, he has had to sleep on sofas at the homes of various friends for the last four months. He finds this situation of always being ‘a guest’ very stressful and difficult. Unfortunately, Osman is not alone in this plight.

On the other side of the coin, about 61 per cent of the homeless are drug or alcohol addicts while 21 per cent have a mental illness which needs treatment. Like the trend in many other countries, psychiatric services have seen their capacity to cope greatly reduced in the last 10-15 years. Again, as in many countries, the voluntary sector and charities are picking up the pieces that governmental welfare services cannot deal with. Organizations like the Salvation Army and other voluntary groups do much to help the most needy homeless people and also co-operate with the official network. Many rehabilitation centres are privately owned but receive some state subsidies. Workers in the field, however, express frustration because their clients are given a low priority in society and there is a general lack of appropriate alternatives. Many people are forced to remain in institutions longer than necessary because it is difficult to find a place to live.

Safety net

Although the overall picture is fairly grim there is, nevertheless, an economic safety net for all inhabitants in Norway. Most of the homeless receive social support; some get a pension. But at the same time fewer people than before are linked into the labour market; more people become homeless earlier in life and public support is minimal and decreasing. Another problem is that the bureaucracy involved for a homeless person claiming benefits can be daunting and requires knowledge and resources to orient oneself within the system and ascertain one’s rights. Those unable to find their way through the bureaucratic maze can easily give up, faced with the complexity and inaccessibility of the official organizations.

During the very cold winter (even by Scandinavian standards) of 1996/1997 the Salvation Army established emergency shelters in Oslo for homeless people. This caught the media’s attention, who have since become more involved, putting pressure on politicians. The media have also focused on the fact that government housing ‘policy’ seems to be reactive - crisis intervention and ‘fire extinction’ - rather than long-term and pro-active. Now the Ministry of Municipal Affairs is currently developing a social housing programme for people in "straitened circumstances".

"The poor house"

Human resourcefulness and the recognition of a simple need lies behind a self-help organization - The Poor House - run by and for people who are in an "involuntary relationship of dependency on the government". Their aim is to increase the quality of life and living conditions of those whom society rejects and strengthen the individual’s ability for self-help and care. All those involved work as volunteers. Members can get assistance with tackling bureaucratic red-tape, and are offered courses and information on social rights and duties. An important aim is to create a place where people can meet. A member says: "The moment I walked in here the first time, the stigma of being on social security immediately dropped away. Here I was looked on as a resource."

Poor House members actively co-operate with other organizations to oppose injustice, and influence political decisions which will directly affect people of limited means. Says Trond Olsen, one of the initiators of The Poor House: "Norway ratified the UN Convention of Children’s Rights. And still there are children in Norway whose parents are homeless. Norway is a very rich country, we cannot blame it on the economy. Besides, if we are not able to implement it here where there is a good economy, where else will they be able to do so? Then one might as well give up the whole convention. Really, the true issue is a lack of will to do something about the situation."

It would appear that politicians tend to trust ‘market mechanisms’ to solve the problem. The issue and the need are taking on a political dimension. In Oslo, unlike some other Norwegian cities where there has been a real effort to improve conditions, local politicians have been reluctant to accept responsibility for the difficult housing situation and little has been done to alleviate the problem and associated negative effects. To local politicians homelessness is a moral issue; the larger picture of structural conditions and how and why people are marginalized in society is ignored. Having a home thus becomes a matter of fitting oneself to ‘deserve’ - having a home is a sort of prize for being a model citizen, rather than a simple, legitimate human need.

From the October 1998 issue of Share International

Articles about homelessness

FAQ on homelessness
Also see:
Articles on hunger and poverty
Articles on sharing
Articles on social justice issues

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