Homeless in Holland

Last week the Dutch media reported that, according to the national bureau for statistics (CBS) the number of homeless people in the Netherlands has doubled in the past ten years. At present 39,000 people (mostly men) live on the streets. The categories of men between the ages of 18 and 30 , and of men with a non-western migration background are, In particular, overrepresented. Many organizations found these numbers extremely shocking, and the responsible government official promptly promised to give the matter his immediate attention. Yet, a week later, the news has already receded into the background. But it kept coming back in my mind. How can it be that in one of the richest countries on earth we do no succeed in giving everyone a roof over his/her head? I know that there are shelters where the homeless can stay for a limited period of time, but these are overfull and do not provide a lasting solution. The Salvation Army is active in this area, but I do not see many other Christian organizations that have made care for homeless people a top priority.

For me this is something I cannot easily set aside. Likewise, it is difficult for me to pass a beggar without some feeling of embarrassment and guilt. A few days ago I once again spent some time in Brussels and I am always struck by the relatively large number of beggars on the streets of that city. I usually give them one or two euros. It also happens occasionally that I do not give, but then return to leave a few coins. I know all the arguments why one should not give—but I realize that there are always among these beggars some persons who have very few options if they want to stay alive: it is either a matter of stealing or begging.

As I write this blog I remember an experience in Greece. It was during a tour of senior church members from the Netherlands, with me as the tour leader. During our time in Greece we went to church in Athens. I had been invited to take the sermon that morning. I preached in English and was translated into Greek. Our hotel was just a few blocks away from the Adventist church building. I decided to explore things on Friday evening and walked to the church. In front of the main entrance I found six homeless men who were clearly addicts. When I made some enquiries, I learned that this was their habitual sleeping place. However, every Saturday morning they were forced to leave and the needles and other evidences of their presence were cleared away. I wondered why these people were not given a place in the church building, where there seemed to be ample room. Of course, I understood the arguments of the elder of the church, when I asked him about this. He told me that giving shelter to these people was not a good idea. Some members would no longer come to church, and parents with children would not want to have their children confronted with drug use, etc.

Had I been responsible for the use of the church facilities in Athens I would probably have come to the same conclusion. But as I write this paragraph the question emerges once again: What is our Christian responsibility towards people who, whether or not through their own faults, find themselves at the margins of our society.

I admit (albeit with a degree of uneasiness and guilt) that it is not a realistic option to invite a homeless person to come and stay with us in our home, and also that there are lots of practical problems in making some parts of a church building available for sheltering some homeless people. However, there must be something that we can do as a faith community. Could we not start a shelter for homeless people somewhere in the country? No doubt, there are some subsidies available that would make such a project financially viable. When in 1933 (at a time when our denomination in Holland was much smaller) the church leaders saw a need for a home for orphans and other children that needed a roof over their head, Children Home’ Zonheuvel’ was started. If such a project was feasible in 1933, why would starting a home for the homeless not be feasible in 2019?

And, maybe, there is still another way to make a modest contribution towards solving the Dutch problem of the homeless. It would seem to me that helping the homeless would be a very relevant project for ADRA-Netherlands, possibly in support of other organizations with a similar goal. I am sure this would appeal to many Dutch ADRA donors!