I looked at myself carefully in the mirror, studying my face to remember who I was and what I looked like. Preparing for my transformation from Ole Martin to a rough sleeper, I was trying to keep hold of something familiar.
I reminded myself that I was a Franciscan monk, a member of the mendicant order founded by St. Francis of Assisi, and that I lived in St. Hallvard Monastery in Oslo. It was summer, and I had just completed my first year as a social work student. After careful reflection, I had decided to go ahead with a project I had been dreaming of for a long time. I was leaving the security of the walled cloister to go out on the streets.
My hands were shaking a little. Something had changed. My brown robes lay in a heap on the floor and I was standing stark naked in front of the mirror. I started dressing: torn jeans, a hoodie sweater, and old army jacket and dirty trainers. I fastened a blanket and a sleeping mat on top of my little bag and packed a toothbrush, toothpaste and a notebook. I looked across at my Visa card, money and mobile and left them lying on the shelf. I abandoned soap, shampoo, spare clothes, sleeping bag, food and drink. As I fastened the last strap on the bag, I was struck by an unexpected feeling of freedom. Was it a freedom from something or a freedom for something? For the next few weeks I would be living with uncertainty, trusting that there would be some kindness out there.
I took a last glance at the mirror, walked down the spiral cement staircase and closed the heavy door of the monastery behind me. The sky was clear, the sun was shining and I took a deep breath of the clean, cold morning air. A yacht was moving slowly across the Oslo Fjord. I walked
past the high buildings on Enerhaugen, into the Grønland district of Oslo and further on. I knew these streets well, but something felt different. Was it that I would be sleeping out? I didn’t know. I wandered further and came out at the top of the square in front of the railway station, where I sat down on the top step. The stone step was cold. A chap came shambling along. Our eyes met, and he sat down beside me. I only had time to smile at him before he threw up all over himself.
Sitting there beside the massive stone tiger on Jernbanetorget, I realised that my stomach was rumbling. I would normally have eaten my pack lunch at the college by this time. Was there anybody who would give out food? I saw people, cars, advertisements, shops and a bicycle. I saw a beggar holding a notice. Another fellow stood beside a waste bin, stuck his hand down, extracted a half-eaten hamburger and devoured it.
I walked on towards the sea. Perhaps I could ask for a couple of shrimps from one of the fishing boats. On the Rådhusplass in front of me there were dozens of fruit and vegetable stalls. I slunk forward. Should I ask for food? What if someone recognised me? Was the best tactic to appear hungry, sad and diffident or to be confident and positive?
An elderly man wearing a hat was selling potatoes and onions. A woman was weighing out cherries. I waited until the customers had paid before I approached. I didn’t want anyone to hear my request. The lady with the cherries looked friendly.
‘What would you like,’ she asked with a friendly smile.
‘ Er … well … I … I’m hungry and homeless. Can you give me some food?’
Her smile changed.
‘Food for you? I don’t have any.’
She looked away, moved over to sort some apples and glanced
sideways to check if I was still there.
‘But … if … maybe you can … maybe you Oslohave some not so
good fruit you were thinking of selling off at the end of the day. Could I have some of that?’
She sighed. She bent forward, looked down and grubbled about in a box.
‘Here, take these,’ she said reluctantly, almost pushing me away as she handed me two peaches.
‘Thank you very much.’
I looked down at the two mouldy peaches in my hand. Not an inch of them was edible. The greenish, downy hairs on their skin signified the early stages of decomposition. I stuck my front teeth into the not so bad parts, swallowed them down and threw away the rest. They stuck in my throat.
I wandered on towards the National Theatre. A young man was sitting beside the fountain. I approached him.
‘Have you any small change you can give me?’
‘No, I’ve only got notes.’
He looked away.
Two young lovers were strolling hand in hand. Their happiness
encouraged me and I moved towards them, but the boy took a protective grip of the girl and led her past me in a wide curve. I turned to watch them. The girl looked back and our eyes met.
I plodded on to Karl Johans Gate. Sitting on a bench there was a gentleman with a suit, a briefcase and dark, black sunglasses. I plucked up courage to ask.
‘Sir … excuse me … but … I wondered if …. you see … I’m homeless … and so … I’m hungry, can you spare me any change?’
‘No! Go to Hell!’
At Oslo Social Work and Child Care College I was trained in social welfare law and good communication. I read pages and pages about the history of social work, research methods for health and social services and sociological perspectives. But the gap between learning and living, between theory and practice, was too wide. I was acquiring book learning but lacked experience. The tutors spoke about the challenges of working in a social work office, about problem-centred approaches and fast, efficient working methods, about good communication with clients, about institutional treatments. We learned about empathy and respect, but we were not prepared for the dark, intense suffering and the pain crying out to heaven. We studied the social services regulations paragraph by paragraph, but we knew nothing of lawlessness, anarchy, and street justice. That was why I had decided to experience life on the streets at ground level, as a street sleeper.
What was it really like out there? What did they think about? How did they get food? How would I get by as a rough sleeper?
I had a privileged starting point. I was doing this voluntarily, for a short time, in summer, and I always had something to come back to. I had an escape route whenever I wanted, though I had set myself a target of a certain number of weeks, and I started in good physical and mental health. On the other hand, I wanted to put myself in a realistic situation. That was my project. I would sleep out, I would be hungry, I would feel the cold, I wouldn’t conjure up money.
A shout from the other side of the tree:
‘Overdose! Overdose! Shit! Can somebody call an ambulance?’ A girl took out her mobile and rang. I jumped forward. It was the
girl in the fur coat, lying motionless on the ground.
‘Hell, she’s not breathing! She mustn’t die, she’s my woman,’
exclaimed a chap standing over her.
The fur coat was open. Under it she was almost naked, with her
trousers and pants down around her legs. A syringe was sticking out of a bruised mark in her groin, and strips of blood dripped down her deathly pale thigh. Scars and boils everywhere. Her lover slapped her face.
‘Waken up, Freda! Come on! Don’t give up now, my girl. Don’t leave me … Come and help me here! We must do something!’
Hansen and I took one arm, her lover took the other and we got her up onto her feet.
‘Walk, Freda! WAAALK!’ he yelled.
She just hung from our arms like a heavy sack of potatoes, with the syringe hanging from her groin.
‘Pinch the inside of her thigh,’ he commanded us.
‘You do it, I’ll hold her,’ Hansen instructed me.
‘Pinch hard on the inside of her thigh, it reduces the overdose …
Feeling faint, I sat down with my face twenty centimetres from her crotch, ten centimetres from the syringe. I pinched her thigh.
‘Squeeze harder! Get on with it!
I felt her soft, scarred skin being squeezed between my fingers. I shut my eyes. I was scared of bursting the tender flesh open. Then suddenly there were gurgling noises in her throat, a muffled moan, a slight movement in one leg.
‘Come on, Freda, you can do it! We’ll cope till the ambulance comes.’
We didn’t have to wait long until an ambulance swung into the square.
‘We’ll take over now. What has she taken?’ asked a friendly ambulance driver.
‘A quarter* of heroin with one or two Rohypnol, I’m not quite sure,’ her partner replied. Freda lay on the ground, looking as if she was dead.
‘Please be quick,’ her lover said. ‘She was alive a moment ago.’
The ambulance personnel fixed up the oxygen cylinder and injected her with an antidote. She suddenly came round.
‘Bloody Hell, Freda, I was so scared. You mustn’t kill yourself, you know,’ said Hansen.
‘Fucking idiots! Have you given me naloxone**? Then I’ll need to go to work again.
* usually about 200 milligrams
** an opiate antagonist that reverses the effects of morphine, heroin, etc.
The ambulance crew didn’t say anything. They gathered up their gear, took her name and date of birth and drove away.
‘What were you thinking of, Freda? You scared the shit out of me, I want you to live.’
She stroked his cheek, pulled up her pants and trousers and brushed
down her coat.
‘I love you. But now I’ll have to work again, bloody Hell, I’ll have
to work again.’
She staggered away from the square near the railway station,
towards Grev Wedels Park in the harbour district. I lit a cigarette.
‘That’s the fourth overdose in two weeks, I can’t take it any more,’ said Hansen. I can’t bear to live while she all the time wants to die. Live or die, live or die, live or die, I don’t bloody know whether I’m alive or dead myself. Whatd’you think? Is this life worth living? Wouldn’t it be better to be dead?’
‘I don’t know,’ I replied.
‘That’s what this hellish life is about. She’s working on the streets all the time. I know it’s not easy for her, but it’s bloody hard for me too, knowing that some slob is shagging it up every fucking day with my woman, getting inside her, my Freda.
Hansen broke down and sobbed. I struggled to hold back tears. ‘Have you got a 15-gauge needle?’ a girl asked.
‘What on earth for?’
‘A 15 needle. I need to inject in my neck. Are you crying?’ She didn’t look a day older than fifteen.
‘How old are you?’ I blurted out.
‘That’s none of your business!’
She drew up a syringe. She looked like the daughter of a friend of mine: long blonde hair; a dimple; well spoken; light coloured clothes.
‘Can anyone inject in the neck?’ she called again, even louder. A man with bent knees suddenly came to life. ‘I can!’
‘Oh not him,’ I thought.
He staggered over to her and kneeled down, swaying back and
forth and stretching one hand out to stop himself from falling over. The girl lay down on her back on the asphalt in her white clothes, stroked her neck and pointed to the vein he should use.
‘I hope he doesn’t kill her,’ I thought. The sun glinted on a needle.
‘I got it! Hallelujah! You can always count on us veterans.’ He smiled.
The girl lay there for a while with blood on her neck, breathing
calmly. Then she gathered up her things and looked at the time.
‘Oh no, Dad’s due to meet me by the station in five minutes. He
thinks I’m at the dentist.’
She was distressed, but gradually calmed down until her eyelids
grew heavy, her knees buckled and she sat down with her back against the tree and fell asleep.
DOSSER SEEKING A WOMAN
The door of the night shelter opened at last. I fetched a cup of coffee and sat down at a plastic table. No flowers. It was a drab, sad place, with paint peeling off the walls. A woman drew up a chair and sat down beside me with a gentle waft of perfumed skin, like lily of the valley or a cool summer breeze. She had long, blonde, wavy hair, fair skin, well-formed breasts, a tight-fitting dark jersey and an open and welcoming smile.
‘Hello, I’m Nina. I work here. I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Is this the first time you’ve been here?’
‘No, I’ve been before,’ I lied in a harsh tone.
She drew back a little.
‘That’s OK. Otherwise I could have told you a little about how this
She stood up and moved away.
Did I have to lie to her? Did I need to put her off in this way? I
began to imagine – like a drama on stage – what it would have been like if I had met her here in Copenhagen in my normal life:
… Krasnapolsky Restaurant; a bottle of red wine; white tablecloths; music. Nina arrives in a low-necked summer blouse, a skirt, sandals. We talk about the plight of refugees, then about religion. I ask about her family, her relationships. She feels relaxed, feels that I understand her. We order another bottle of red wine, a Portuguese wine this time. She puts her hand gently on my thigh. She laughs readily at my sometimes superficial philosophising. Besotted with each other’s company, we carry on home to her place …
But I smell strongly of sweat and cheap spirits. I haven’t shaved for days, my hair is greasy, there are pimples on my face and there is muck and snot on my jersey and jacket. I was a ‘service user.’ Did she see anything in me, anything at all? An off-putting type? A slightly irritated and ungrateful guy? I had to put her off before she rejected me. I had to warn her before the signs became too obvious; the signs that we couldn’t meet each other’s intimate needs.
We had defined roles. She was the provider, I was the client. She decided, I conformed. She was beauty, I was filth.
SEX ON THE STREET
One of the really big challenges for rough sleepers is their brutal exclusion from sexual contact with others. Many of them have had to abandon any thought of sharing with a life partner or having children, any dream of marriage. Being cut off from such a basic need as sharing one’s life with another human being can lead to a powerful need to get drunk or to try to find satisfaction either in the dark areas of prostitution or in the
barter economy for sexual services with others in the milieu.11 It is not unusual to receive sexual services, or simply closeness, in exchange for a strip of Rohypnol tablets, a SIM card for a mobile phone or a place to sleep. The boundaries between prostitution, barter, friendship and loving relationship are complex and obscure.
Poor self-esteem and negative experiences of one’s own body make close contact and intimacy difficult. This problem is made even worse by the brutality in the injection drug scene, massive and destructive intake of intoxicants, rough sleeping conditions, wounds, abscesses, pains, infections and not least, illnesses such as HIV, AIDS, hepatitis and venereal disease. Many of the women on the street have injuries from incest, sexual abuse, assault, violence and selling their sexual favours. The need and longing for closeness and sexuality can quickly become problematic and almost insoluble.
Most rough sleepers will if at all possible find themselves a lover on the same level. The sexuality of the people living on the streets can be seen in terms of social class.
Alcoholics and rough sleepers who work their way out of dependency often feel insecure and frightened about forming intimate relationships or having sex with others in sober circumstances, as their sexual experience has often been acquired in a very different context. Also, we know that use of intoxicants often leads to problems with libido, sexual arousal, erection and orgasm. Persistent and intense use of alcohol can cause neurological damage and hormonal disruption, which can also impair sexual function. Men can suffer diminished libido and impotence and women can be affected by irregular menstruation. The use of opiates such as heroin or of opiate substitutes such as methadone often leads to sexual impairment or even impotence.
It is interesting that many heroin users compare their intravenous injection with orgasm and talk about their relationship with the stuff almost as a love affair. I remember what a young woman from the alcoholic community in Oslo said to a nurse she particularly liked:
‘Oh, Marthe – you’re like Rohypnol to me!’
Rough sleepers don’t only think about drugs, money and crime. They are also looking for friendship, closeness, intimacy and love.
A SHITTY MORNING
I wanted to have a shower before breakfast, but I didn’t dare to ask for a towel. I didn’t want to cause any bother on my first morning in the hostel at Sundholm. So I settled for a cat-wash in the toilet. As soon as I opened the toilet door, the stink hit me; an overwhelming stink of diarrhoea. The whole cubicle had been sprayed with shit, including the cistern and half way up the walls. Spots and spatters of the brown fluid were floating together and in some places had coalesced into clumps. I vomited. A pair of jeans and underpants soaked in the same liquid had been hung artistically around the lavatory pan.
I fled into the neighbouring cubicle and washed vigorously with water from the tap. I didn’t have any deodorant. A used and bloody syringe lay on the floor.
I bought some cheese sandwiches and a half litre of milk. As I took the first bite, I had a vision of the shit-spattered cubicle and had to spit out. The man beside me looked at me.
‘Did you smoke too much yesterday?’ ‘I’m just feeling a little sick.’
‘Can you buy me a cup of tea?’
I gave him a couple of kroner.
A lad in his twenties with a skateboard and wearing a baseball cap had taken possession of the computer. There was a little notice saying that people were allowed six or at the most ten minutes at a time. He had been sitting there for thirty or forty minutes. I went over to him.
‘Will you soon be finished?’
‘It’s my turn now. You’ve been sitting here for a long time.’ ‘No, I’m not ready. You’ll have to wait.’
‘Thank you very much. You’re very kind.’
Even though I felt pleased to have finished, I had butterflies in my stomach: too much bitter coffee. I went into Bjarne Lenau Henriksen’s to change for the last time. His office still smelled of a newly smoked pipe and stale tobacco.
‘How did it go?’ he asked me.
‘Don’t know. Difficult to put into words. I think I’ll ring you after a few weeks.’
Even meeting Bjarne, I felt dirty. I recovered my possessions: a lap-top, a town map, my mobile, my Visa card, clothes, wallet. I booked into a hotel, opened the door of my hotel room, hung the ‘Do Not Disturb’ notice on the outside and closed the curtains. There was a message displayed on the TV screen: ‘Welcome, Ole Martin Holte.’ I felt moved.
I switched to a football channel, stripped and did what I had been
yearning to do for a long time; took a long, warm shower, alone, in a clean bathroom with big bath towels. I stood there for ages, using shampoo, balsam, soap and water to excess. I felt it sting in the sores and cracks on the soles of my feet. I shaved off my long, unkempt beard and dabbed my cheeks generously with aftershave.
Then I lay down naked on the bed and fell asleep. A couple of hours later I wakened and put on clean clothes. Who was I? Was I the person I once was? No, I had changed. I knew something other people didn’t know, had been initiated into a sort of secret. I felt that I would be aware of two realities for the rest of my life. I had an obligation to do something with the knowledge I had gained. I was due to visit Pastor Brand and his colleagues the next week to assist in the assessment of their ‘Udenfor’ project visiting street sleepers in Copenhagen.
But here and now I would eat and drink well. Fat prawns and wine from a carafe. I hoped I wouldn’t come across Yngvar, Paula or any of the others. I didn’t want to be disturbed by a bad conscience. I wanted to envelop myself in quiet calm.
I suppressed my feeling of guilt and mobilised desire. I went to an Italian restaurant. In vino veritas. All in proper order: Caprese as a starter; tagliatelle al prosciutto as primo piatto; bistecca alla fiorentina as secondo piatto; then pecorino cheese with honey and walnuts, a bottle of Chianti Classico, two or three extra glasses of the house wine; then espresso and finally grappa. I wanted to gorge myself. I feasted. I left the restaurant drunk and satisfied.
On the way back to the hotel I took to rummaging for empty bottles in rubbish bins.
The Rough Sleeper Project presented me with many ethical dilemmas. It was carried out over a period of three years, or more precisely
three summers: two in Oslo and one in Copenhagen. I took a few essential possessions with me: a blanket, a sleeping mat, a notebook, a pocket-knife, a toothbrush and toothpaste. In Copenhagen I also took two
bottles of spirits and two packets of rolling tobacco. I left behind my mobile phone, laptop, Visa card, money, food, spare clothes, a sleeping bag and toiletries. I arranged to report to specified people twice a week. If I missed the appointment they would initiate enquiries, for example by phoning the police.
I had decided that there were two things I would not do. I would not steal or use narcotics. I feel that I broke the first vow when I asked about being able to buy the Leatherman knife. So far as using narcotics is concerned, I took a draw or two when the joint was going round, just as I took a swig when the bottle was going round. I stayed away from the hard stuff.
I also weighed up some ethical considerations about adopting a new identity. It was I, Ole Martin Holte, who begged for money, slept rough, was lonely. I wasn’t pretending to be somebody else. The cold and the insults were not imagined. On the other hand, I was only passing myself off as a rough sleeper, part of a group that I could leave at any time. In that sense, it was a sort of game.
I decided at an early stage not to reveal my project to the helping agencies. If they had been uncertain who I really was, that might have led them to receive me either more sympathetically or more harshly.
In my relationships with the people on the streets, I told them who I was if we had any prolonged conversation. It seemed unnatural to start conversations by talking about the project, as that might have deprived me of many important experiences. If I happened to meet friends, acquaintances or tourists, I let the situation determine whether I told them about the project or not.
The accounts and experiences I have taken part in are obviously subjective. The interpretations and analyses are entirely my own responsibility. It was not my aim to discover the truth about what it’s like to be a rough sleeper in Oslo and Copenhagen. My starting point was that I could at any time go back to my normal life, even though I had decided to hold out for a certain number of days. I was not dependent on intoxicants, I didn’t need money for drugs, I had no psychiatric illnesses and I was in good physical shape when I started.
Nevertheless, I believe that I really did share some of the experiences of the street dwellers, such as feeling insulted and rejected,
the difficulty of conversation between service user and official, the weariness of always being without money, the experience of feeling sexless and an increasing need to get drunk. I got to see masses of stolen goods, heard stories of thefts that had been done or would be done, cars that had been broken into for a place to sleep, violent incidents and the exchange and use of illegal drugs. I did set myself one obligation, to report if I heard of actual or planned murder or serious violence.
I have used my own judgement to anonymise the people mentioned in the book so that individuals cannot be recognised, even though the events are authentic. As regards people in the helping agencies, I thought that their work should be subjected to open view.
Returning to my usual life after fifty days living on the streets brought both pleasures and challenges. It was wonderful to come back to my own bed, to rediscover the predictability and security of living ‘normally’ and to have access to money, a mobile phone, a laptop and a comfortable corner on the sofa.
On the other hand, I did sometimes feel guilty about the people who were still on the streets, or to put it more accurately were still living on the streets. In retrospect, I asked myself many questions. Had I been playing with vulnerable people? Was I making fun of them and their lives when I dived down into their environment? Should I have tried it for a whole year? Should I have slept rough in winter, when it really is cold?
Since coming back, I have happened to meet several of the people I met when on the streets. A few of them found it hurtful that I hadn’t told them the truth about myself and my project at the time. Most expressed enthusiasm and support, and some suggested that social work students should have such observational experience as a required part of their training.
Some of the things that have made the deepest and most lasting impression on me have been my intense and interesting meetings with people. I had the privilege of being able to come close to individuals in their struggle for survival, to see how they managed to create worthwhile everyday lives in what was for many a totally hopeless situation. The experience of hearing their stories, sharing their thoughts and feelings, joys and sorrows, has enriched me as a human being. I have been reminded of my own vulnerability, but I have also experienced the fellowship that can arise from shared feelings of vulnerability. The gap is short between success and failure, a comfortable and a difficult life, enjoying love and suffering rejection.
I still admire much of the activity of the helping agencies, where many warm-hearted and capable volunteers and employees do a lot of good work. Being seen and taken seriously as oneself is a decisive factor in being willing to accept help and support.
I have also known how painful it is to be unseen, how demeaning it feels to be regarded as just an anonymous part of a group and not as an individual, as a person, as Ole Martin. It only takes a security worker ‘just doing his job’ to ruin a whole day, but it takes no more than a smile to turn a whole day round. For many people, a smile is fellowship enough.
Trying to make a rough sleeper adapt to a ‘normal’ lifestyle can be abusive. We have to accept that there are people who do not thrive within the norms of society, and that we should not put all our efforts into ‘normalising’ them. Society needs to take care of the casualties it has contributed to creating, but we need to recognise the rough sleeper’s responsibility for his own situation. Otherwise, we deprive him of some of his human worth.
But free choice is sometimes not possible. Offers of help can be drawn up in a way that makes it impossible to take advantage of them, and sometimes a homeless person is in such poor physical circumstances that it is difficult to make appropriate decisions.
When somebody falls beyond the reach of the traditional helping organisations, he stops asking for help. Then the difficulties really begin, and it becomes important for agencies to recognise multiple problems and
to work together in reaching out to build up relationships over time. The experience of living on the streets has inspired me to do
outreach work on the streets over many years. As a Gestalt therapist I have done demanding and necessary work in therapy and guidance. As a tutor and lecturer I have been fortunate to be able to share my experiences.
Will I go out to live on the streets again? From time to time I feel the urge to pack my bag and start walking. As the writing of the book came to an end in September 2011, I decided to experience rough sleeping in Oslo again for 24 hours, but I spent most of the time thinking that for the sake of my two small children I mustn’t get infected or injured.
I think my experience as a rough sleeper has made me more broad- minded, both towards myself and towards people on the streets. People have listened to my accounts of the experience of being cut off from normal society. I have felt an affiliation with the people on the streets. I wasn’t expecting that. I haven’t ruled out doing it again. Sometimes I get itchy feet.