Odense, Denmark, is approaching its homelessness problem in a more holistic way than American cities such as New York, pictured here. ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.com

An opt-in program in Odense aims to use the data to bring services to the homeless where they already congregate.

A Danish city is now tracking its homeless citizens via GPS. Allotting trackers to un-housed locals as part of a pilot program, Denmark’s third-largest city of Odense will now know exactly where they go, how they get there, and how long they stay.

It sounds intrusive, even dystopian, doesn’t it? Believe it or not, the thinking behind the plan is actually very positive and benign. Odense is gathering the information not to find ways to exclude the homeless, but to work out how it can make the city a better place for them to live in. By tracking where and when homeless people congregate, Odense can choose the best locations for benches and services such as coffee rooms and shelters provided by the municipality. Rather than using the police to force the homeless away from public sites, the city can instead bring services to them where they already are, encouraging full use of them and avoiding pointless, dehumanizing stand-offs.

The homeless participants (currently a core group of 20) are also very much on board, an enthusiasm perhaps helped by the three meals a day offered during the research period. “They are not at all paranoid,” says project coordinator Tom Rønning in the article linked above. “They want to contribute to the offers being made ​​to them, so that we have peace and quiet in the city. It's lovely.” Denmark’s record on accommodating homeless people is pretty good, perhaps because this wealthy country (with a decent welfare safety net) still has relatively low levels of homelessness. Along with such simple, humane measures as founding a homeless cemetery in Copenhagen (its unofficial keeper is movingly profiled in this video), the country is taking steps to work out how homeless people’s lives could be improved, instead of merely hidden.

Such consideration for the homeless might come as a shock to those living in other countries. Just as in the United States, Europe’s cities often seem more interested in stigmatizing and excluding the homeless than helping them. Odense’s plans were balanced out by news this week from Madrid that Mayor Ana Botella plans to alter 4,000 city bus stops in order to make them impossible to sleep in. The idea is to replace existing bus shelter benches with new models with seat dividers, so that no one can lie flat on them to shelter from wet weather. In a city where Spain’s economic crisis has made thousands homeless, the decision is already sparking outrage. As this article notes, many are asking why, when funds for actually helping the homeless are so limited, the city is exerting itself to rustle up cash for a scheme that makes their lives just that much harder.

Madrid is far from alone in making this kind of move, of course. In some ways, it’s actually behind the times. This June, Londoners were similarly scandalized when the presence of “anti-homeless spikes” outside some of the city’s buildings was brought to their attention. These little shiny metal knobs (more studs than spikes) are screwed into the ground to make it impossible to sit or lie there. They’ve been likened to the anti-pigeon spikes that bristle on buildings to prevent birds from perching. Just like pigeon-discouraging pins, the spikes are a way of preserving a building’s tidy aesthetic by treating the homeless as vermin.

Thankfully, the spikes were seen as a step too far, and public outcry has led to many high-profile sites removing them. This can only be a good thing. When a city starts treating homelessness as an essentially aesthetic problem—when it makes hiding evidence of it a priority—its values are already starting to rot from within. If Odense’s plans can teach us anything, it’s that working with and listening to homeless people can create a better city for everyone.

(Top image via ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.com.)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A person tapes an eviction notice to the door of an apartment.
    Equity

    Why Landlords File for Eviction (Hint: It’s Usually Not to Evict)

    Most of the time, a new study finds, landlords file for eviction because it tilts the power dynamic in their favor—not because they want to eject their tenants.

  2. Equity

    Berlin Will Freeze Rents for Five Years

    Local lawmakers agreed to one of Europe’s most radical rental laws, but it sets the stage for a battle with Germany’s national government.

  3. A photo of Lev Hunter, a Flint resident who works at a hospital, is also a local entrepreneur behind the Daily Brew, a coffee start-up.
    Equity

    The Startups Born of Flint’s Water Crisis

    Five years after the Michigan city was hit with its public health emergency, there’s good news—and signs of an entrepreneurial resurgence—coming out of Flint.

  4. A photo of a Google employee on a bicycle.
    Equity

    How Far Will Google’s Billion-Dollar Bay Area Housing Plan Go?

    The single largest commitment by a private employer to address the Bay Area’s acute affordable housing crisis is unique in its focus on land redevelopment.

  5. A map showing the affordability of housing in the U.S.
    Equity

    Minimum Wage Still Can’t Pay For A Two-Bedroom Apartment Anywhere

    The 30th anniversary edition of the National Low Income Housing Coalition report, “Out of Reach,” shows that housing affordability is getting worse, not better.

×