Monday, October 10, 2011

Undercover in Amsterdam: A day on the street

The Holland Times  recently published my story of a day spent as a vagrant begging on the streets of Amsterdam.  The day was indeed a surprising experience.  The following  text from the October edition is posted with permission from The Holland Times.

Amsterdam may be famous for its seventeenth century canal girdle and gabled houses and historic Red Light District. But beyond the bustle lies a small community. Glimpsed on street corners, begging cup in hand, they live a life many can only fathom. MATT LUNA goes undercover as a homeless man in Amsterdam to reveal the aggression, unlikely bonds and acts of kindness that make up their days.

I have tried to imagine what takes place in one day for the people that I see living on the streets of Amsterdam. Having avoided their glances, but also given them money for reasons which I am not certain, I began to think that I could discover more about the city and its people if I spent even a short time in their situation. One day is merely a brief moment compared to those who live years at the mercy of the weather and other people’s goodwill, but it would be an opportunity to see a different side of life.

I decided to leave my home and spend one day dirty and begging in Amsterdam, where the homeless are visible, but not as numerous as in other major European cities. The Dutch government provides generous programs for those who want to get off the street. Some people even spend their entire lives living in shelters, with the government paying a third of their housing costs. But there are others living out there, having found themselves on the street as a result of mental illness, substance abuse or other factors. I did not know what to expect, but I hoped to gain some understanding of what these people go through. Perhaps I could offer some small bit of hope and help to these people and provide a clearer picture of the homeless for others and myself.

16h00 (The day before) My experience actually begins the day before I plan to go into Amsterdam posing as a homeless person. Unshaven with dirty hair and old t-shirt, I go into a second hand store to buy an ugly old jacket. When I stop to look at some used golf clubs, a vendor approaches and accuses me of trying to steal them. I realise that I do not look like my usual self, and it dawns on me that I have no clue what is waiting for me tomorrow.

08h00 (The next day) – I set out for the day wearing the old blazer jacket that I’ve cut, ripped and dirtied in our garden. A large shopping bag on my shoulder completes my ragged appearance. The look is more of a camouflage to blend in to the streets than a dead serious disguise, as I know that the day may require some flexibility of character to gather the information I am seeking.

09h00 – Amsterdam Central Station - I enter a café inside the station and ask the girl at the counter if she can offer me free coffee, with no luck. I have to pay, but she does tell me to "Have a nice day." What the hell kind of day did she really think someone like me was going to have? But she was just doing her job, sending me off with some kind of pleasant remark. Maybe lots of homeless people have nice days in Amsterdam, come to buy their coffee from her and tell her all about it. I doubt it.

I take a place against a wall immediately outside the entrance of the train station. People are moving through rush hour as I spread an old blanket from my shopping bag on the ground and take a seat. I smell a faint odour of urine as I set my hat on the blanket to gauge how people react to begging. A group of private security guards taking a cigarette break near the door ignores me.

Two Amsterdam police officers approach after less than ten minutes. One officer asks, "What are you doing here?" in a severe tone. My pulse quickens, but the strange thing is, I don’t even think about who I am, but feel like the vagrant I pretend to be who is about to get in trouble. "I am resting,’’ I reply in a tired, raspy voice. The large officer gets closer, knocks over my hat, peers into my shopping bag and studies my face. "This is not a place to rest. Take your stuff, your hat and go there," he says, pointing out towards the city. He seems confused by my presence there and appears to be deciding whether to arrest me or give me a fine. It is clear I need to move along.

09h30 – Damrak:  I sit in front of the busy restaurants and tourists shops, tear the top off the cardboard cup from the train station café and place it in front of the bench. A tourist kicks the cup away carelessly as he passes in front of me. "Hey!" I shout. He looks over his shoulder but does not stop. Then another man kicks my cup, but he does not look back. Not long after, a mother with stroller runs over my cup and it gets stuck in the wheels.

10h00 – I see the first "other" homeless person sitting on a bench nearby. The burly man with a long beard, weathered jacket and backpack looks at me, then at my bag and my begging cup as he gets up and walks in my direction. I feel like a fraud as he walks past without speaking.

The McDonald’s near my bench offers no free coffee when I ask. Burger King also refuses shortly after. My mood is dark and I am wondering if this day will contain anything of interest. But my spirits are lifted when I hear accordion music coming from a street corner, where a Romanian girl is playing for coins. She looks at me with kind eyes, and smiles. This brightens my mood.

11h00 - I find a place sitting outside a tourist shop with my tattered cup in front of me. Two more young, Romanian-looking girls approach and stare menacingly. They draw closer, look into my cup and then say something I cannot understand, but I guess it to be that I do not belong there. I start babbling something incoherent when they linger, then move away while their eyes angrily follow me.

12h00 - I see a raggedly dressed young woman sitting at the corner of Kalverstraat and Spui. There is a coffee cup with a broken handle in front of her with which she begs for change. Eva, 18-years-old, from Germany is happy to speak with me when I drop some coins in her cup. She seems unsure what I am doing there – as I am looking poor with money to spare - but apparently dismisses it and speaks. "Sometimes people are nice and sometimes unfriendly," she says. I ask if she encounters problems while begging and she says, "Yes, people see my cup and they kick it! My money gets scattered." I am satisfied when I hear this problem that I have already experienced on my own today.

I am sitting with Eva when I notice two rough-looking young men looking down at me. One has tattoos and piercings about his face and neck, the other is wearing a hood over a still visible injury to his nose. They both have threatening looks on their faces, and I see that I have once again put myself somewhere that I do not belong. I wonder if I am about to be assaulted over territory or the fact that I am talking to the girl. They take their places between Eva and me, and I feel unwelcome. Once talkative, Eva sinks back to her place against the wall.

It takes only a couple of minutes and some offered cigarettes for the situation to ease. Dennis and Nico, both 18 and from Germany, say they have been living on the street with Eva for about a year. Dennis says that police in Amsterdam frequently make them move if seen begging, but that they can earn around 30 euros in a day with their broken coffee cup.

Eva, Dennis and Nico in Amsterdam.
Nico studies me for a second and asks if I am also living on the street. I tell them I am, and that I am writing about it after having lost my job as a journalist. No one seems bothered by the contradiction of my presence: dirty, but working on a vaguely stated project. The fact that they readily accept me makes me think that these people encounter bizarre situations daily. They are all friendly at this point and eager to talk. We are interrupted by a lady who brings over one sandwich and one bottle of water. "You will all have to just share,’’ she says.

"They are bastards," Eva says about the Amsterdam police when I ask, "In Germany, you can sit on the street and nobody says anything." I notice that we all take a quick glance around as we discuss this. The three say they teamed up after meeting on the street. Noticing that they are young, on the street and Eva is wearing a short skirt, I ask if they are ever offered money for sex. They say they have not without seeming to be shocked by the question. Eva starts to tell of once being asked to go around a corner with someone, but wanders from the point of the story and never finishes the tale.

Dennis asks a question which soon becomes a large part of my day. "Do you know any homeless help organisations or places where we can go to sleep?" I do not know what to tell them. I am here to get my story, but I also want to provide some help to those I meet. He shrugs it off and lights a joint. With some remotely stylish clothes, these young Germans appear to have at least partially chosen this lifestyle, although I think they probably didn’t choose all the factors that led to where they are.

During our conversation, Dennis asks me if I know the time. I had removed my usual watch before leaving my house and put a cheap time piece in my pocket. I think it strange for him to care what time it is, and am reluctant to pull out even an old Timex in front of the strangers.

I drop more change in their cup and tell the group I need to be on my way. As I leave, I think that I should do something more to help, so I walk to a nearby Albert Hein grocery store to buy them lunch. The group is grateful when I return with food and sit down to eat with them. No one speaks much during lunch, but the four of us watch people walking by with their shopping bags. I notice a large clock on a building that was facing Dennis when he asked for the time. It is curious, but perhaps he did not see the clock before he asked me We all shake hands goodbye after lunch, and I leave wishing I could do something more to help.

13h00 - Continuing towards Vodelpark, I pass in front of the French cultural institute and enter into the elegant reception room. I ask a well-dressed Frenchman in his 50s if he knows the location of an office that provides help for poor people. He remains polite in saying "No," but looks on his computer to try to find helpful information. I feel out of place in this room, but not unwelcome. The minutes pass slowly as he unsuccessfully searches on his computer. I excuse myself and tell him that I just wanted to help some people I had met.

14h00 – Vondelpark – I set my begging cup in front of me and open a Heineken, take a pull from the warm beer and relax. A man with long, scruffy hair and beard looks at me closely as he passes. He is about 45-years-old with a weathered face and looks like he could have once been homeless himself. He puts 80 cents in my cup. He does not speak, but looks at me with an inquisitive gaze. I imagine past troubles, and present, smoother present times in his life. I thank him, but he gives only a slight smile as he walks away.

A strange encounter finds me as I am strolling in circles on the grass near the water. A small, dark and scruffy man wearing a motorcycle helmet approaches me and asks for a cigarette. I tell him I do not have one and he becomes rude and aggressive in his body language. I cannot resist asking, "Why are you wearing a motorcycle helmet in the middle of the park?’’ The man becomes more agitated and gets closer to my face. "It’s a fetish" he says, then opens his shirt to reveal a motorcycle racing jacket he is wearing underneath his shirt.

I move away from the man with the fetish and find another bench and again set out my begging cup. A skinny teenager kicks the cup away as he passes in front of me. He looks back, says "sorry," with a pause, then continues walking.

After another beer by the water, I approach a young couple and offer to tell them a joke. If they like it, I barter, they can pay me fifty cents. They are both amused by the proposition and agree. I tell them an old joke about a bridegroom and mother-in-law to be. "I’ve heard it, but that gets you a fifty cents wage as a comedian." The girl reaches into her purse and I catch a two euro coin she tosses to me. We part with a strange laugh and I am left with the impression that they are nice people.

I later stop two police on bicycles, and ask if I am allowed to beg in the park. "No that’s not allowed," they answer. They study me closely and try to peer into my shopping bag. I thank them and go on my way.

15h00 – My back is aching as I exit the park and take Overtoom back towards the train station. I walk into a general medical clinic, or Huisartsenpost, and ask the lady at the reception desk if she speaks English. "A little," she replies in a short tone after taking notice of my ragged appearance. I tell her that my back hurts and ask if she has any ibuprofen. She says she does not, but tells me medicine is sold across the street at the pharmacy. I explain that I have no money and ask again if she can give me medicine to relieve my pain. She offers no help and no compassion, and sends me back onto the street.

I stagger back onto the sidewalk and move aimlessly in the same direction as before. The day is taking its toll as I switch my shopping bag to another shoulder in an effort to alleviate my discomfort. I see a pharmacy across the street.

Two customers are being helped ahead of me inside the small pharmacy.  One is an elderly man and the other is a bald, slim man in his 40s with a tattoo on his neck. The pharmacist, a well-dressed man also in his 40s, is polite when I tell him I want medicine for my aching back. Meanwhile, the pharmacist’s female colleague gives the bald customer next to me a stack of small boxes.

The pharmacist asks me what I want, and I tell him ibuprofen, but then add that I don’t have any money. He stops for a second and seems confused. Then, he reaches to the shelf of medicine for sale and produces a box of generic brand ibuprofen. He slaps the box firmly into my hand with a look on his face that seems to say, "Here, I am being nice by helping you, but I am also acting firm so you do not try to take further advantage of me." I am moved by his gesture of good will and I also understand the manner in which he treats me. This man works at a store full of drugs, he does not want problems from the street. I thank him and quietly exit the store.

Happy to have the ibuprofen, I begin again on my journey. I am surprised outside when I hear "Come here," and see the bald man with the tattoo from the pharmacy motioning for me to come to join him by his bicycle. What happens next is the most surprising moment of the day thus far.

He asks if my back is hurting, and I truthfully answer it is. He reaches into his paper pharmacy sack and says, "Mine, too. They just gave me a shitload of this medicine and it’s more than I need." He hands me an entire box of Tramadol – a painkiller I recognise – and says, "Don’t take too many and be careful when drinking alcohol." I try to accept only a couple of pills and give the box back, but he refuses and says, "Like I said, they gave me a shitload."

I am stunned. I was just turned away from a clinic that should have offered me assistance. Instead, I am being given aid by someone who simply overheard my situation. I thank the man and am on my way. His generosity is probably illegal and arguably dangerous to someone in my supposed state, but I am still surprised by his kindness. I take two Tramadol capsules and continue walking.

I notice that all my pain is gone and I have a calm sense of well-being as I near the Leidesplein area. The medicine is taking effect. I have been pondering how I would be treated if I went to a nice café or restaurant and sat down for service. A large terrace at a nearby café offers this opportunity.

The outdoor area is busy, but not overwhelmingly crowded for the two young men waiting tables. I take a place at a table with my shopping bag and wait. After what seems like ten minutes, I motion for a server to take my order. He says that he will be at my table in a minute. Five more minutes pass and I signal to the other server who is clearing empty glasses nearby. He disappears into the café. I am being ignored.

As I sit in the sun at the café and wait for service that is not coming, I notice that the man in front of me bears a strong resemblance to the actor Gene Hackman. I interrupt his conversation to ask if he is the actor. He is bothered by my interruption and says, "No." I insist - perhaps rambling now from the pain medication, sun and a few beer.

16h00 - My trek towards the train station continues as I stumble north on the Kalverstraat shopping street. I enter the Coffee Company and ask for a free coffee. The young man says "Yes, I’m in a good mood," with a smile, and even asks if I want cream and sugar. The tip cup on the store counter says, "Good Karma." I tell him that his Karma is good, and he seems to appreciate the remark. It’s funny that the free cup of coffee I have been seeking all day is finally given to me by someone whose tip cup says "Good Karma."

17h00 – Dam Square – The late afternoon tourists and workers are moving through the square. I think once more that the day is finished and I have seen most of the interesting things that could be in store for me. Two approaching police officers – male and female – are about to change that thought.

I stop the young officers and ask if they know a place that can assist the homeless with meals or a place to sleep. They seem surprised and discuss my question in Dutch for what feels like five minutes. They finally say that they do not know of anywhere, but tell me that there is a police station nearby where I ask again. I am hoping to get some information to share with my Germans friends. Besides buying them lunch, that would be one positive thing I could do while on this slightly bizarre investigation.

After realising that they cannot help, I ask if it is allowed to beg for money in the city. They quickly tell me it is not. I then push the question – perhaps again a result of the beer and pain medication – and ask what happens if they find someone begging. They say a fine can be given. I then tell them that if a person is begging, they probably do not have the money to pay a fine. What happens then? They state indirectly that the beggar in question could be taken to jail. I become aware of my dirty appearance and the fact that I probably smell of sweat and alcohol. The male officer starts to study me closer. "How long have you been in Holland?" he asks. I realise I have overstayed the limit of friendly conversation and offer a vague and rambling reply, saying that I have not been there long and am going to leave soon. I thank them for their time and amble away across the square through the tourists and musicians.

I reach the north edge of the square and I am surprised to see the two officers staring at me and speaking to each other. They begin walking in my direction. I quicken my pace but the police are closing the distance between us. I decide to turn up Damrak to get lost in the moving crowds and to determine if they are actually following me; I am just being paranoid? They turn the corner behind me, and I zig zag just out of their sight. I pick a spot out of the way of pedestrian traffic and begin making notes in my journal. Just then, the officers appear heading straight towards me.

I try to act lost in my writing and begin slowly shuffling in the opposite direction. Just as I about my third step in a feebly evasive effort, I hear, "Hello, Sir!" in a booming male voice. The male officer has now stopped me. The female officer circles and takes her place next to me as I wait to see what they want.

"You need to come with us to the station," the male officer says firmly. I say that is not necessary and tell them I will be on my way. I start walking again, hoping they will just stay there, but the female officer authoritatively adjusts her position and says that I need to come with them in a voice that does not invite further debate. Wondering where this is leading, and realising that I do not seem to have a choice, I agree to go with them. We walk to the Damrak police station.

Being taken to the station, I assume I have been arrested on some sort of vagrancy charge, It is intriguing until I remember the Tramadol pain killers – for which I of course do not have a prescription – in the pocket of my tattered jacket. I began the day prepared to suffer any legal consequences of what begging on the street would bring, but I am now nervous. Even though drug laws are notoriously relaxed in Amsterdam, I do not want to find out what happens to an American posing as a vagrant with a pocket full of pain killers. I imagine telling my family that my day has finished with an arrest for drugs.

I decide to reveal my project as the officers are escorting me to the station. The male officer remains silent when I tell them that I am actually a journalist working on a story. The female officer is skeptical at first and speaks to me in a patronizing voice. She looks me over and says, "Well, you have a hole in your jacket." She is probably referring to my overall appearance and probable smell.
At the station, I ask "Am I under suspicion for doing something wrong? Are you really trying to help me?" "We are really trying to help you," she replies. I begin to relax and become more interested in how the Amsterdam police will handle this situation.

We pass through a set of secure doors and enter the reception area of the station. The male officer goes behind the front desk to a room. The female waits with me in the reception area without saying much. Several plain clothes officers appear one by one from the small room, study me for a couple of seconds, and then go back. The male officer finally returns with the address of the homeless shelter, the Salvation Army (Leger des Meils) on Oudezijds Voorburgwal.

I walk back outside with the officers. I am pointed around the corner and given directions to the shelter in the heart of the city’s Red Light District. I thank them as I am leaving and also say – thinking about Eva’s "bastards" comment – that I hear stories about unfriendly police conduct. The female officer says, "Don’t believe everything. Stories have two sides." Perhaps Eva would think differently of the police if she had seen how these officers helped me.

It’s a warm, late afternoon when I leave the police station and head into the Red Light District. This part of the city is lively in the early evening as red neon reflects from the canals. I see sex shops and windows where the prostitutes are working. I reach a door on Oudezijds Voorburgwal with a red sign similar to that of the Salvation Army in the US.

18h00 - I ring the intercom, and the voice that comes over says that there is no room. I should go to another shelter that is not far away. I tell the female voice that I am a journalist writing a story about the homeless in Amsterdam and how they can get help. After a pause, the door creaks open slightly. The woman tells me that it is not a good time to visit the centre because, "People are eating, they live here and need their privacy." I plead with her to let me enter, telling her that people need to read about where help can be found. She leaves to fetch a paper containing more information about shelters in the area.

I then leave and shuffle past the windows of the bikini-clad prostitutes, making my way back to Centraal Station. One working girl in a window sees me and holds up three fingers, motioning for me to come inside. Really? I find this surprising, considering my present appearance. She cracks open the door and says that thirty euros will get me twenty minutes with her. The poor girl is clearly not bothered by how I look; she is eager to earn money. I find this strange, a bit shocking and sad. I tell her that I have no money and I continue on my way.

On my way to Centraal Station, I see two police officers questioning what looks like a homeless man. I slow down and keep a distance, trying to see what is happening. I have the idea to give the police the information I received from the homeless shelter. Maybe the officers will then send the man for help. I copy the information and give it to the officers. One takes the paper and I move away before any questions are asked. I have had enough contact with law enforcement.

19h00 - I lean my dirty head against the train window and think of all that I have encountered today. My train arrives at Alkmaar station. My world is slowly returning to normal with the sight of my bicycle waiting near the station. I ride home to find my wife and children waiting with dinner prepared. As difficult and dirty of an existence as life on the street may be, there does seem to be plenty of "good karma" in Amsterdam. Most people were willing to take time to talk and help at least in some small way. In the future, I will probably help point the needy towards Salvation Army shelters. People like Eva and her friends could find assistance if they were willing and able to approach city authorities instead of avoiding them, but I know that getting help is not always as easy as it seems.

No comments: