A house but no home

By Thirza de Raad and Julia Pulm, pictures by Annelijn Oviawe

Neon light is illuminating the portal of the ‘Leger des Heils Wellbeing and Health Care Center’ at Zeeburgerdijk, in the north of Amsterdam. Colorful walls create a friendly atmosphere and the smell of hot coffee reaches the nostrils. Young men in oversize sweatshirts are chatting next to the coffee brewer in the common room, while others are sitting on comfortable sofas and watching TV. A billiard table stands next to a couple of wooden tables, which provide enough space for having lunch and playing games together. An older-aged woman is sitting next to the entrance and designs Christmas cards for the staff members. The ‘Leger des Heils Wellbeing and Health Care Center’aims at helping homeless people to get back on the right track by providing them with a place to sleep and live. Currently, there are about 50 people living in the building at Zeeburgerdijk in Amsterdam.

According to estimates from the Dutch council, about 200 people sleep in the streets of Amsterdam every day, while there are around 39,300 homeless in the entire Netherlands. However, exact numbers do not exist, as each country has different ways to count homeless people, especially if they are not registered. As per the Dutch ‘Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek’, the majority of homeless people are men, whereas the number of homeless people with a non-western migration background has been rising rapidly between 2009 and 2018. In order to help the homeless to find a place to sleep and reintegrate in society, there are daycare facilities and night care shelters in the Netherlands such as the Salvation Army ‘Leger des Heils’.

‘Leger des Heils’ is a private and charitable organization, founded in 1887, running charity shops and operating shelters for homeless people and disaster relief. They also have a “neighborhood living room”, in which people from the district can meet up and spend time together. In other locations the organization gives homeless the opportunity to follow a daily job. “We do a lot more than just offering a place to sleep. In this place (‘Leger des Heils’ in Zeeburgerpad) we offer people a daily activity, where they work a couple of days a week, to keep them entertained and busy. They have to be here on time and when they can’t come, they have to call to inform us about that. This way, we hope to establish a feeling of responsibility”, explains Irako Montano, trajectory mentor and supervisor at ‘Leger des Heils’. Homeless people come here in all different stages. While some of them are working their way back up, others are still at the bottom.

One of the employees is Siep. The 42-year-old is working five days a week on a daily wage of eight euros. “Sometimes I do packing work, sometimes it’s montage,” he says, while he runs his fingers through his long brown hair. His skin is pale and a single glove covers his right hand only. His blue eyes are shining. Siep got homeless at an age of 25 and has lived on the streets for a couple of months. He lost his house in Amsterdam because he could not pay the high rent anymore. “When I was on the streets, suddenly a woman came up to me and she asked me if I wanted to live in a homeless center.” Siep appreciates the chance he got by ‘Leger des Heils’. “Suddenly I had a roof above my head and people around me who helped me. This makes my life much easier; I’ve got offered a job and that’s how I started working here.”

The homeless who work at ‘Legers des Heils’ are not the stereotype of homeless people (middle-aged men with a beard). Also, women and young men in their twenties come to ‘Leger des Heils’. “Recently a boy of 19 came by. He is one of the youngest people that have ever been here,” says Irako Montano. Each homeless has his individual goal for the future, while ‘Leger des Heils’ takes up the cause of pointing them in the right direction by trying to show how a usual work life would look like and providing homeless with a daily job. Not everyone’s goal is to get his own home. Some of the homeless are trying to overcome an addiction or paying off their debts. “Just because they are in a better place, doesn’t mean they don’t have certain issues anymore, like an addiction,” adds Irako Montano.

After a while, a middle-aged man, wearing a pattern cloth as a skirt, enters the common room at Zeeburgerdijk. He immediately introduces himself as Assad and starts talking about his life. Born in Somalia, Assad fled to Great Britain when the war broke out. First, he worked at a flower company and later became a truck driver for KPN, a mobile service company. After a few years his back started giving trouble and pain, which is why he had to stop working. Because he got no welfare in Britain, Assad moved to the Netherlands in 2017. Here, he is gaining a certain amount of money after have become homeless for the first time in his life.

First, he lived in another ‘Leger des Heils’ accommodation where he had to share a room with five other people. “I am so happy with having this room on my own,” says Assad while taking a seat on the head of the wooden tables – his favorite place to interact with others. In order to get out of his homelessness, he is following a language course to improve his Dutch skills. “If my back doesn’t queer my pitch I want to go working again.”

Also, Siep has never regretted going to ‘Leger des Heils’. He’s facing his problems and isn’t embarrassed anymore with the fact that he’s homeless; “I mean I was on the street, didn’t have an income. So, in my case ‘Legers des Heils’ definitely helped me get back on track. My next goal is to get my own apartment.”