For many visitors to Stockholm, it comes as some relief to see how few people live on the streets, sleeping rough.
For the most part, homelessness does not appear to be a major issue. However, scratch under the surface and it becomes clear that it is a problem on the rise.
In most major capitals around the world, the sight of homeless people camping out in shop entrances or under cardboard roofs is nothing unusual.
It may be less common in Stockholm, but one group in particular is causing concern – over the past twelve months there has been a noticeable rise in the number of Europeans, from what was formerly known as the Eastern Bloc but who are now citizens of the European Union, who come here seeking better conditions than those they have left behind, but find life cold in more ways than one.
At Pelarbacken, a small reception centre at Stockholm’s Erste Hospital, Rolf Byström treats a young Romanian man, displaced from his own country, but homeless and in need of help in Sweden.
It is a sight which Byström, a man with extensive experience of looking after the homeless, says is becoming ever more common.
“We have seen a big rise in the number of EU citizens finding themselves homeless here over the past year,” he tells The Local.
“What makes this group different is that they do not have the normal illnesses you associate with the homeless. They are often young, generally quite healthy, between 25 and 30, and don’t normally have the kind of addiction problems one associates with the homeless.
“Their ailments are more psychosomatic,” continues Byström.
“They come about as a direct result of having nowhere to live. They can be depressed, have problems with their joints, bad stomachs, migraines, things like that.”
Their biggest problem, though, is red tape.
“Even though, thanks to the freedom of movement rights within the EU they are allowed to be here, because they don’t have the right paperwork they are not allowed proper long-term treatment, which in some cases can be relatively simple,” he explains.
“It is a huge problem and one those of us who live and work in Sweden should be able to help with.”
For a medical professional like Byström, the situation is extremely frustrating.
“It is terrible as a doctor not to be able to give treatment to the people that need it”, he adds.
The opening of a new centre for the homeless in Stockholm on March 1st this year is, in some ways, a positive step, but it also underlines the depth of a problem that is growing almost daily as more and more Europeans who have come to the Swedish capital find themselves caught in a bureaucratic trap that all too often leads to unemployment and homelessness.
The centre, located on the island of Södermalm in central Stockholm, is part of the Crossroads project, an effort funded by contributions from the EU, Stockholm City and the National Public Employment Service (Arbetsförmedlingen), to help job seeking migrants from within the EU find their feet in Sweden.
The money pays for food, rooms, furniture, computers and five full-time employees. In addition there are also some 40 volunteers, including psychologists, lawyers and interpreters.
Those coming from EU countries, especially Romania, but also Poland and the Baltics, face a paradoxical problem. They have the right to be in Sweden and obtain certain benefits as long as they can support themselves they are covered by insurances from their homeland.
All too often though, they don’t make use of the benefits to which they are entitled.
Although citizens of EU member states are free to take advantage of the freedom of movement provided by EU membership, each member state still has its own regulations governing how it determines who qualifies for benefits.
In the case of Sweden, rights are severely restricted for people who do not have a regular job or if they lack Swedish citizenship.
And while people from other EU member states can apply for citizenship in Sweden, they must reside in the country for three to five years and have been granted permanent residency before doing so.
Furthermore, as EU citizens they are not allowed to stay in the other homeless shelters provided by the state and NGOs around the city.
For many, unbeknown to them, the problems can start even before they arrive.
The Stockholms Stadsmission charity, one of the city’s main homelessness assistance organisations and a main driver behind the Crossroads project, recently conducted interviews with 68 homeless people staying at Crossroads shelter.
Many were found to have extensive work experience in their home countries and often have had short-term jobs in Sweden.
The interviews also revealed, however, a number of common misconceptions among the shelters residents about the rights and responsibilities of being an EU citizen.
Many believe, for example, that just having lived in an EU country for a while will entitle them to the same rights as full citizens.
In addition, many were also they are further misled about the ease of finding cheap accommodation and a job in Stockholm.
“Many want to go home but end up in a situation where they do not have the money for the journey back,” Stadsmission project manager Malena Bonnier said in a recent interview with the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper
“They are referred to social services, which refers to the embassy, which usually says no. Then they are stuck here.”
As with all such issues, it is hard to quantify exactly how many people there are living on the streets as there are no official statistics.
But one thing that those working in shelters for the homeless all agree on is that the number homeless in Stockholm is growing fast.
“This is a frightening proof of the difference between the rich and the poor – on a personal and national level,” Byström concludes.
“To put it cynically, it is the export of poverty, and an issue that badly needs addressing. As Swedes living in a rich country we can and should do more.”