Guest post by Lieke Wissink. Lieke is an anthropologist and philosopher who works at the Youth and Society knowledge center, University of Applied Sciences, Amsterdam. She engages in an action-research project with undocumented youths at a day shelter, and carries-out participant observation, group workshops and interviews with residents. This blogpost reflects on feelings of empowerment and precarity as expressed by the shelter members during the Covid-19 pandemic. This post is part of our new themed series on border control and Covid-19.

Unequal access to pandemic safety measures

It was mid-March 2020 when measures proclaimed due to the Covid-19 pandemic emptied the streets and canals of Amsterdam during an otherwise buzzing spring. While the majority of citizens retreated to their homes, homeless people in the city experienced a sudden closing of the public sanitation centres they depended on, such as the ones found in libraries, as well as of specialized shelters that used to provide warm meals. The municipality, following an advice of the city’s healthcare organization, the local GGD, recommended that homeless people stayed outside as much as possible in the time of ‘home isolation’ because shelters were considered to be too crowded. Being ‘outside’ prevented homeless people to follow basic hygiene rules, let alone those considered necessary to contain the virus. Among these people are undocumented people, too. At 19, Kissma (not his real name), is one of them.

Home Isolation, by Kissma, 20th April 2020

Having no access to precautionary hygiene and social distancing measures reinforced feelings of exclusion for Kissma. While reflecting back on the first period after the measures were proclaimed, Kissma said: ‘Before corona I made two Dutch friends. We exercised together… One of them told me that they don’t feel safe to train with me anymore because of corona. That day… pffff….’, he sighed while staring at the ceiling before continuing, ‘I felt so embarrassed! I felt like a nobody… When people know that you are homeless, they make you feel like you have corona.’

The conversation between Kissma and me took place in a day shelter promptly opened in March by a small local foundation to address the vulnerable position homeless and undocumented people found themselves in under ‘corona measures’. This shelter, housed in the communal kitchen of a squatter’s community, can only accommodate ten people once the social distancing requirements are taken into account. The composition of the residents group was formed somewhat coincidentally, when members of the foundation in close contact with the local undocumented community encountered youths who had no other place to go to. The day shelter is still run by the foundation at the moment of writing, but at their insistence the municipality eventually decided to partly support the shelter financially. The shelter residents are all young men, and mostly from African countries. Kissma and his friend Tom (also not his real name), who is 22 years old, are among them.

Evening meal served in the night shelter, 3rd May 2020 (Photo: Tom)

Secure in the day, scared at night

At nighttime the recently formed group stays in a sports hall that serves as a temporary night shelter fully run by the municipality. A one-and-a-half-meter gap is all that separates the beds filling up the huge hall. The space and facilities are filled with up to a hundred homeless people. ‘Sometimes I don’t feel safe’, Tom said about the situation, ‘I live with many people in a night shelter. We use the same toilet... the same shower. I cannot protect myself from the virus’. Tom pointed out that the sports hall exposes those who spend the night in there to health risks that other people are protected from, at times when even small gatherings are forbidden. Everybody in the night shelter is forced to leave the hall in the morning and carry their belongings with them, only to be allowed to return in the evening.

Tom’s sleeping space, May 2020 (Photo: Tom)

While preliminary research findings highlight that feelings of loneliness among young people in the Netherlands generally increased by 49 % due to home isolation measures, this group of youths shared a sense of stable togetherness in the day shelter that circumstances before the pandemic did not allow. Although many of them claimed to miss the liveliness of the city, and the places and potential jobs they would normally find accessible, they follow a daily routine during the pandemic, and share a sense of collectivity that offers them temporary stability that was impossible in their pre-COVID-19 illegalized lives. As Tom suggested: ‘Before we stayed in the park. I was very worried, very, very worried. But here it is ok. I start to know the people. I start to learn Dutch. We do different things every day. People keep me busy’. Kissma commented on the people who run the shelter: ‘You hang out with us. That makes me feel okay. You treat me like we are all family. We are friends like family.’

Night shelter, May 2020 (Photo: Kissma)

Their daily rituals formed over time. Every day, someone goes shopping at the local supermarket for the whole ‘family’. Cooking shifts are divided and the young men have their meals together. There are discussions on what music to put on, Johnny Cash being one of the favorite music choices. In the afternoon, a game of chess might be played. A sense of belonging has been created through these daily activities and interactions, and through the fulfillment of their basic needs, such as having access to a clean toilet. While describing the activities that now fill his days, Tom commented: ‘Cooking together... doing shopping together... cleaning together... doing laundry. We help each other. We talk.’ The group name coined by the youths after a day of painting was: ‘Better Together’. While they were cleaning up before leaving for the night shelter again, Kissma observed: ‘I completely forgot the time. It is so nice to get my mind distracted’

Impressions of home, groupwork, 7th May 2020

Reinforcing and Reversing

This self-organized day shelter illustrates how the Covid-19 crisis reinforces social inequalities, such as unequally distributed access to health measures. The members of the day shelter expressed feelings of increased alienation from their social environment, and felt disproportionally exposed to health risks related to the pandemic. At the same time this crisis somewhat reversed existing social disparities between these undocumented youth and youth in Amsterdam who usually find themselves in more stable situations. The social life of the latter group was seriously disrupted due to the closure of schools, sports clubs, or other social activities with peers during this period. But for the undocumented youth in the shelter their pre-existing condition of “structural crisis” was softened by the community and daily rituals formed in the shelter. Overall, the social aspect of the day shelter had an empowering impact. ‘Coming here makes me feel that I am strong’, Tom said, while he raised his fist. Yet, they are well aware that the limited stability they experience will likely disappear again in post-corona times: ‘I am worried about the future’, Kissma concluded, ‘Nothing is clear yet. They say they will close the night shelter by the end of May, I am worried about that.’

‘Together We Are Stand’, Tom, 1st May 2020

Kissma’s worries are well-founded given the attitude towards undocumented youth in Amsterdam and beyond. His experience, like the one of his fellow day shelter members, differs from that of Dutch youth represented in the research on increased loneliness. However, both highlight that youths’ well-being benefits from a sense of belonging and support. Despite this shared precariousness, the difference between the two groups is that undocumented youth are structurally exposed to living situations that make it impossible to build a community for themselves and their peers – except for this small group during the current temporary crisis: ‘We are Better Together.’

‘Better Together’, groupwork. Written in Arab above is ‘hope’, below ‘freedom’, 7th May 2020

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Wissink, L. (2020). How a City in Crisis Reinforces and Reverses Social Dynamics: Field Notes from a ‘Corona’ Day Shelter for Undocumented Youth in Amsterdam. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/06/how-city-crisis [date]