As most of Finland switches to remote working, learning or schooling, where do the homeless go? And how is the shutdown of services affecting their daily life? I decided to investigate this by going out on the streets of Jyväskylä with the workers of the service centre Hanska as well the support programmes Pyöröovesta ulos and Tukialus. I wanted to get to know and talk with the men (there were no women among them) myself and obtain contacts for future research.

Who are the people in the street, then? Not all of them are homeless by any means. Some have housing, which has not yet become a cosy home to stay in, however. Others can stay overnight at a friend’s place and have a constant fear that the friend might become ill, slip up in their recovery, or just kick them out. And then there are those who spend the night homeless in some cold but relatively dry space. Each person has a different path, but there are some connections as well. Substance abuse is a common reason to end up in the street, but those same substances are also a means for coping so that life can feel at least a bit more tolerable for a while.

As the first concrete consequence of the coronavirus for the city’s homeless population, the service centre Hanska was shut down on 18 March 2020. Hanska is meant for the homeless, those with substance abuse problems, and people without access to other services. Now that it is closed, there is no longer any such last-resort shelter in the city centre where these people could take a shower, wash their clothes, read newspapers and magazines, get a daily meal or sleep in a safe and warm place. At the same time, the food bank started to make appointments by phone or through Facebook. How to make an appointment when you have no call credit left on your phone? Or when you have no access to the Internet now that public libraries are closed as well?

Even more than before, the coronavirus era seems to have marginalised those who had poor access to resources in the first place.

As support places closed, they quickly switched their services to a digital form. Access to the services seems dependent on access to public Internet connections. Yet when libraries are shut, such access becomes more difficult. Not all have smartphones available, so lacking access to the Internet seems to be a strong factor in pushing people to the margins. The coronavirus era has facilitated a digital leap in society, but it has also highlighted the digital gap between different groups.

Many people in the street belong to risk groups for a range of reasons – smoking, drug replacement therapy, underlying diseases, or poor opportunities to maintain good hygiene due to homelessness. It is confusing that the instructions of authorities are not in line with the general guidelines for risk groups. Instead, for example, those in replacement therapy must, as before, come in person to pick up their medication, often many times a week.

When the service centre was shut down, Hanska and Tukialus took their services to the street. In workdays, the workers offer both breakfast and lunch in Kirkkopuisto. At the same time, they can guide and support clients when there are no other services available. The past fortnight has caused much concern and fear about the worsening health of clients, as they are already now visibly emaciated. A further concern is how the remnants of these last-resort services will reach clients if the workers are not allowed to take the services to the street and meet clients in person. As before, the homeless clients remain in isolation on the streets.

Ulla Salovaara

The writer is a postdoctoral researcher in the Social Work Unit as part of the Academy project entitled “Transforming welfare service system from the standpoint of women in vulnerable life situations”. Her doctoral dissertation from last year dealt with the possibilities of social integration for women with a criminal background.

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