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The Danish Approach to Beating Homelessness

By Arielle Kroloff | Position Paper

Imagine that you’re walking on the streets of New York City and you see a man curled up next to the curb. Although the temperature outside is well over eighty degrees, the man is bundled up with layer upon layer. You notice that most people pass him by with just one glance, probably feeling disturbed for a moment or two, and then they continue on with their day. However, some people stop and make an effort to pull out the change in their back pocket and throw it in the paper cup next to him. This makes you think, could you survive a night on the street? To most people, this thought seems inconceivable. Being forced to sleep on the street without a roof or stomach full of food doesn’t seem realistic to those of us who are more fortunate. However, what most people don’t know is that this situation is not that improbable. It only takes the loss of a job, or one eviction to turn a family’s home upside-down. Having no home to turn to is a devastating situation that truly anyone could find himself or herself facing. I had the opportunity of being able to meet people who experienced this exact same circumstance. A national program called Interfaith Hospitality Network enables homeless individuals and families to live at local temples and churches for a certain amount of time (“Interfaith Hospitality Network”). I had the chance to volunteer during the weeks that my temple hosted the program, and I was able to develop a relationship with the families in the network. I gained a new perspective on how serious homelessness is in our country simply by listening to the hardships that the families had gone through. I quickly realized that becoming homeless was a real possibility for many people, especially with our country’s current economic state. The United States has a homeless population of about 2.3 to 3.5 million (“Facts and Figures: The Homeless”). This large number cannot be ignored, thus we must find examples of low homelessness rates in order to put our high statistic into perspective. Is there anywhere in the world that has been able to make an impact on the amount of people that are homeless?  One of the lowest rates of homelessness in the world belongs to Denmark, a Scandinavian country. And so, it makes sense to look at their methods of fighting the homeless problem. Because the current methods of the United State are unsuccessful in lowering the homelessness rate significantly, we should adopt Danish’s three main successful models and their concept of “housing first”.

Before one approaches the strategies of helping the homeless in two different nations, one must first understand those countries’ understandings and states of homelessness. According to Lars Benjaminsen and Evelyn Dyb, the Danish see being homeless as people who are “rough sleepers”- or people sleeping on the street, hostel users, and people living in temporary housing (48). Lars Benjaminsen has a PhD in Sociology and is an expert on homelessness in Denmark (“Lars Benjaminsen”). In 2007, Denmark’s population was 5,447,000 and the number of homeless people was 5,253 (Benjaminsen and Dyb 49). On the other hand, in the United States, someone who is homeless is “an individual who lacks a fixed regular, and adequate nighttime residence” (U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development). The United States has a population of about 313, 232, 044 (United States: People and Society) and the amount of people who are homeless is anywhere from 2.3 to 3.5 million (“Facts and Figures: The Homeless”). This statistic means that one percent of our population is homeless, as compared to the 0.1% homeless rate in Denmark. The number of homeless children in the United States is as high as two percent, which is around 2.5 million people (“Facts and Figures: The Homeless”). It is clear that the meaning of a person being homeless in Denmark and the United States is very similar. However, you might notice that it is easier for a person to fall under Denmark’s definition of being homeless, by including hostel users in the definition. Thus, even with a broader scale of being homeless, Denmark still manages to maintain a low rate. So why is there such a difference in the number of homeless individuals? This paper will discuss the strategies of Denmark that are so successful in lowering the rate of homelessness. I will also advance the position that the current methods of the United States must be modified. There is an economic viewpoint to this argument; however, I will not be addressing the economic factors. This paper is a call to action: our nation’s strategy of helping the homeless must be re-evaluated. I will explore the strategies implemented by a country that has been able to achieve a low rate of homelessness. Denmark has followed three main models: the normalizing model, the tiered model, and the staircase model. All of these models create a foundation of support and narrow down the target population, according to Finn Kenneth Hansen (“The Homeless Strategy”118). Hansen is an expert on the redistribution of income in Denmark (Hansen, “Redistribution” 139). Denmark also focuses many of its strategies on the concept of “housing first” (Benjaminsen and Dyb 59). Finally, I will address the government’s failure to recognize the weakness of the United States’ methods. Being that our rate of homelessness is significantly higher than Denmark’s rate, it is vital that we take a second look at our methodology.

The Danish have accepted three main approaches for attacking the problem of homelessness. The ideas include a “staircase transition”, a normalizing model, and a tiered model (Hansen, “The Homeless Strategy” 118). These three concepts were developed for the years 2009-2012 in order to achieve four main goals (Hansen, “The Homeless Strategy” 115). These goals are the following:  1) no citizen should be forced to live on the street 2) young people should never live in hostels for the homeless 3) periods of housing in “care homes” or shelters should last no longer than three to four months, and 4) if one is released from prison or discharged from courses of treatment, an accommodation must be in place (Hansen, “The Homeless Strategy” 115). These organized objectives result in centralized strategies that have a clear aim, making the vision obvious and the methods understandable. The “staircase transition” (Hansen 118) or “staircase communities” were created in order to transition victims of homelessness into permanent housing with support (Benjaminsen and Dyb 54). The staircase community is a method that is specific to the needs of certain individuals who prefer a slower progression into independent living. The name of the model explains itself, it is a system that goes “step by step”, in order to gradually help a person stray away from the life style of homelessness.  

The second model is the normalizing model, which is a system that moves the homeless individual into independent living initially, with individually designed support (Hansen, “The Homeless Strategy” 118). This model advances the person a bit faster than the “staircase transition” but still involves individualized support (Benjaminsen and Dyb 118). The tiered model is a process by which a person living in a hostel moves to independent living. This model also includes an intervention process that helps break the “negative circle” by providing a gradual adaptation to autonomous living (Hansen,“The Homeless Strategy” 118). The “negative circle” I believe Hansen is referring to occurs when homeless people are moved to independent living too quickly; this transition can be counterproductive because they are not yet prepared for changing their lifestyle so drastically. These three strategies were clearly efficient in helping the homeless because eight municipalities implemented the method (Hansen, “The Homeless Strategy” 115). The city of Aarhus in Denmark even developed a system that used traditional housing to integrate the elements of the tiered model and public housing (Hansen, “The Homeless Strategy” 118). This again shows that the models that were created for the years 2009-2012 had positive results, being that institutions and cities continue to put them into action. The organized structure of the models is clearly producing positive results, and thus should be used by the United States as well.

The three models assisting the homeless, mentioned above, fall under the main concept of Denmark’s ideology: “housing first”. The idea of  “housing first” is that housing needs to be secured before the process of treating mental health issues or substance abuse can begin (Hansen, “The Homeless Strategy” 117). First, the public housing sector is about twenty percent of the total housing stock in Denmark (Benjaminsen and Dyb 59). Having such a large portion of housing dedicated to public housing shows that Denmark values the needs of the homeless. One specific model in Denmark is called the “skaeve huse model”, which provides homeless people with their own home and a conventional tenancy agreement. The “skaeve huse model” allows homeless individuals to continue freely with their daily living routines, without the threat of losing their home (Hansen, “The Homeless Strategy” 119). I believe that this accommodation was made because if the individuals were forced to abandon their normal habits during their first experience of living independently, they may become destructive due to being uncomfortable. There is also no permanent staff living in the house. Social workers pay regular visits and perform services when necessary (Hansen, “The Homeless Strategy 119). Hansen states that “housing first” cannot stand-alone and must be combined with other initiatives that will contribute to managing the issues of the homeless (“The Homeless Strategy”119). It is also vital that the support be “goal-directed and tailored to the specific needs of the individual” (Hansen, “The Homeless Strategy” 119). By establishing independent lifestyles for the victims of homelessness, the people are able to feel a sense of freedom, which allows them to live under a roof once again. Also, having the ability to live in one’s own house first, before treating other possible problems, gives the individual a feeling of stability. The United States has not been a follower of the “housing first” approach; however, given that it has had a positive effect, our nation must reconsider putting this method into action. 

Another system that follows the “housing first” idea is called the “Freak Housing for Freak People” (“ Homelessness in Denmark”). Since the term “freak” has a negative connotation, it is also known as “Unusual Housing for Unusual Lifestyles” (4). This is a method that provides housing that caters to the needs of homeless individuals who find it challenging to adapt to the mainstream homeless services (“Homelessness in Denmark” 4). The process includes providing housing first to the homeless person and then eventually other services, such as mental health treatment, when the individual reaches stability (“Homelessness in Denmark” 4). One of the main goals of the “Unusual Housing for Unusual Lifestyles” system is to narrow the target population (“Homelessness in Denmark” 5). Narrowing the target population allows the system to help the individuals more closely. By having a smaller group of people with very similar issues or situations, it becomes easier for people such as social workers to provide help. Danish service provides specialized support for people who are without shelter completely, and also for people who have failed to integrate into conventional homeless shelters (“Homelessness in Denmark” 5). The main objective of the method is to improve the quality of the individual’s life, and thus reintegration into the community is a last priority (“Homelessness in Denmark” 5). Since housing is a basic need and gives the person a sense of stability and security (“Homelessness in Denmark” 5), this is the single most important priority for helping the homeless. It is clear that providing housing first to the homeless individual is a strategy that is implemented in many different areas of the social services process in Denmark, and has also been successful in lowering the rates of homelessness to the small number of 0.1 percent.

The approaches of the Danish that were mentioned above are clearly sensible because of their defined goals and also their implementation by several regions and municipalities. On the other hand, the United States has fallen behind. As mentioned before, our rate of homeless people is ten times higher than that of Denmark’s. This is a value that cannot be ignored. Millions of people on the street cannot be ignored. One of the problems that the United States faces is not evaluating our homeless shelters efficiently. The purpose of evaluating a shelter is to achieve improvement within the shelter and to learn what is helpful or detrimental to the clients (Winship 165). However, evaluations that have been made were extremely unsuccessful. Due to the lack of published studies of effective methods for helping the homeless, obstacles during research have developed (Winship 166). Also, even if changes were eventually made to the shelters, it has been difficult to see results because of the lack of contact with the homeless clients after they leave the shelters. Without being able to track the people who had lived in the shelters, it becomes difficult to see the impact of the “improved” services (Winship 167). Nevertheless, Denmark has been able to successfully monitor the effectiveness of the strategies used. Denmark is able to evaluate outcomes in terms of the general development of homelessness on a national and municipal level. Monitoring is accomplished with data and national homeless counts (Benjaminsen and Kamstrup 4). Not only does Denmark evaluate strategies overall, but it also monitors interventions on an individual level with the goal of obtaining evidence of the impact of specific methods. By achieving a successful strategy of evaluation, improving methods becomes much easier for the Danish (Benjaminsen and Kamstrup 4).

Along with unsuccessful evaluations in the United States, the process of deinstitutionalization in the 1950’s also resulted in more people living on the street (Marksos and Lima 2). The process of deinstitutionalization involved the elimination of mental institutions, which then led to an increase of people living the street. Denmark, in comparison, worked on improving mental institutions (Hansen 115), which resulted in a lower rate of homelessness (Benjaminsen and Dyb 49). The contrast is clear. The United States has developed methods that have been unsuccessful in lowering the rate of homelessness, whereas Denmark has not only created their own effective approaches but has also executed these strategies successfully.

At this point in my paper, I would like to address a few objections to my argument that exist. Some many note that the United States has enacted legislation to lower the rate of homelessness. This is true, for example the McKinney-Vento Assistance Act that was signed in 1987 (“Facts and Figures: The Homeless”). This act was created to “protect the rights of homeless students and to ensure that they receive the same quality and appropriate education that other students receive” (Hernandez Jozefowicz-Simbeni and Israel). This act that was put into action by President Ronald Reagan is still the only major legislation that focuses on the homeless. However, the McKinney-Vento Assistance Act was unsuccessful in getting to the root of the problem by not seeing the homeless as individuals (“Facts and Figures: The Homeless”). The program was unable to make a significant impact on lowering the rate of homelessness. The failure of this act is an example of the United States being unproductive in creating an efficient method of helping the homeless. And considering that it is the only major legislation in place today, the problem still exists. So although the argument can be made that the Untied States has made an effort to put legislation in place to helping the homeless, it has not been able to do so effectively.

Another counter-argument that can be made is that Denmark is significantly smaller than the United States. With a population difference of about 308 million, it’s easy to see the contrast of demographics between the two nations. Given that the difference is so large, some may argue that imitating Denmark’s methodology in the United States would not produce the same results. This may be true; however, the argument that I am making is not that the United States should replicate Denmark’s strategies. I am simply arguing that the ideas that Denmark has used, such as providing shelter before treating other issues, or having definite goals and organized structure, would be an efficient way to approach the homeless problem. Instead of implementing the exact models of Denmark into our own system, it would be best to integrate Denmark’s ideas of “housing first” or structured goals, into our own strategies. Yes, Denmark’s population level is considerably smaller than that of the United States and it would be a challenge to reproduce the same results as Denmark with their same methods. Nevertheless, Denmark’s ideas and strategic thinking are elements that should, and must, be imitated in order to achieve a more favorable rate of homelessness. Being that Denmark’s population is only 0.1 percent homeless and the United States’ population is one percent homeless, it is obvious that their methodology has proved to be more successful than that of ours.

So could you survive a night on the street, a night with little food, little warmth, and little safety? Becoming homeless is not inconceivable; just take a look at the numbers. The fact that almost 3.5 million people are living on the streets in just the United States alone (“Facts and Figures: The Homeless”) cannot be ignored. What is the Untied States doing wrong? The answer is that we are not following in the footsteps of a nation that has achieved an astonishingly low rate of homelessness. As mentioned before, Denmark’s number of homeless people is notably less than that of the United States; clearly, the Danish must be doing something right. Denmark follows a goal-oriented strategy that has produced recognizable results. Their methodology consists of having three main processes, the normalizing model, the tiered model and the “staircase transition” (Hansen, “The Homeless Strategy” 118), which fall under the “housing first” ideology. Lastly, the methods of the United States are full of flaws. By eliminating mental institutions and generating faulty evaluations of homeless shelters, the United States has slowly allowed the homeless population to rise. Denmark’s low statistics must be taken into consideration when the United States government decides to implement successful strategies of helping the homeless. Next time you see a bundled-up man on the street with a face full of sorrow, think about Denmark and how they are slowly taking people like this off the street. We must take action now, and the policies of Denmark are the answer.

Works Cited


*Benjaminsen, Lars and Evelyn Dyb. “The Effectiveness of Homeless Policies-Variations among the Scandinavian Countries.” European Journal of Homelessness. 2 (2008): 45-67. Web. 3. Dec. 2011.

*Benjaminsen, Lars and Rune Kamstrup, “The Danish National Homelessness Strategy- Experiences on Anchoring Interventions on Municipal Level.” (2010): 1-5. Google. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. PDF file.

*European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless. ”Homelessness in Denmark: “Freak Houses for Freak People or “Unusual Housing for Unusual Lifestyles.” Feansta Shadow Peer Review. (2005): 1-15. Google. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. PDF file.

“Facts and Figures: The Homeless.” JumpStart Productions, 26 June 2009. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

*Hansen, Finn Kenneth. "Redistribution Of Income In Denmark." International Journal Of Sociology 16.3/4 (1986): 139. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.

*Hansen, Finn Kenneth. “The Homeless Strategy in Denmark.” European Journal of Homelessness. 4 (2010): 112-125. Web. 2. Dec. 2011

*Hernandez Jozefowicz-Simbeni, Debra M., and Nathaniel Israel. "Services To Homeless Students And Families: The Mckinney-Vento Act And Its Implications For School Social Work Practice." Children & Schools 28.1 (2006): 37-44. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.

“Interfaith Hospitality Network.” Family Promise, n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

*Markos, Patricia A., and Nichole R. Lima. "Homelessness In The United States And Its Effect On Children." Guidance & Counseling 18.3 (2003): 118-124. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.

United States. Central Intelligence Agency. United States: People and SocietyThe World Factbook 2009. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2009.

United States. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. Federal Definition of Homeless. Washington: GPO, n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

United States. U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. McKinney-Vento Act. Washington: GPO, n.d. Web. 10. Dec. 2011.

*Winship, James P. "Challenges In Evaluating Programs Serving Homeless Families." Journal Of Children & Poverty 7.2 (2001): 163-177. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.