Noerreport Station is one of the busiest places in central Copenhagen. Buses, trains and the metro all meet there. Many busy shoppers and commuters have noticed a man with narrow square glasses and tattoos on his hands and neck sitting on the pavement with his dog. He lives in the streets nearby. For many years he held a cup in his hand. He begged for some change so that he could get by.
In 2013 a Hus Forbi street paper vendor who used to hang around near the station suggested something to him that would change his life. André Christiansen started selling the street paper and is proud to no longer be a beggar. He has a companion – a dog named Odin after the oldest of the Nordic Gods. Here, he tells his story, and reveals his essential possessions.
By Poul Struve Nielsen, Hus Forbi
“For four years I lived as a beggar. But one day the Hus Forbi vendors came to me and said: “You can do better than that!” We have been colleagues ever since, and I am proud that I am not a beggar any more. Now I have something to offer,” André says.
He and his faithful companion Odin have been together for three and a half years.
“I was divorced in 2010. The ex-wife stayed in the apartment. Drink and divorce. That’s the story of my life,” he adds.
It is not the whole story though. André’s life is also the story of how he lives in a triangle between the streets, the prisons and psychiatric hospitals. He has been in and out of institutions for most of his life.
“I was born mentally ill. I have three diagnoses of ADHD, OCD and PTSD. I have been married twice and I have three children with three different women. I drank alcohol as medication for many years,” André says.
On weekdays he spends the morning in Hus Forbi’s vendor café with Odin. Around noon he usually has a meal and then he says goodbye to the staff and the other vendors to go out into the streets near the station to sell Hus Forbi.
“I never managed to finish my education, even though I was training as both a cook and a plumber. Every time I feel almost normal I get ill. I drink. Emotions are difficult for me and it is a problem keeping jobs and marriages.
“I have been in psychological treatment since 1979. In 1988 I was convicted for robbery. I have been a criminal. I have been in and out of prisons and hospitals for a lifetime. But in Hus Forbi’s cafe I am allowed to be the person I am. Everyone else coming here has problems. I am not the only one, so I am OK here.
“Hus Forbi has helped me get a decent life rather than being a beggar. I have something to offer to people now. I talk to many people about the paper, the content, what it is like to be homeless.
“I consider the staff and some of the colleagues at Hus Forbi like family. When I am with the Hus Forbi family I can relax. I feel safe and comfortable. Hus Forbi’s cafe in Copenhagen is a better place for me than an apartment or a house.
“At the start of November I will have been sober for six months. I have decided that I want to stay sober for another six months. That is my new target. At first I decided to take a week without a drink and I have just added more and more time.
“When I am not drinking it means that I get my medication. Alcohol has exactly the opposite effect of the medication. Also, I get aggressive when I drink. I am still an alcoholic but it’s been a long time since the last drink.
“Being part of the Hus Forbi family has helped me keep in touch with my children. Just the other day I managed to get a family photo with me and all three of my children.
“I consider the staff and some of the colleagues at Hus Forbi like family.”
“The kids are proud that I have come to where I am now. That I don’t drink. I had not seen the oldest daughter for four years. I know that I will lose them again if I drink.
“The Hus Forbi staff have helped me when I have been down and low. The nurses who come as volunteers in the dispensary also help. One of the nurses, Jannie, who is a volunteer from Red Cross, really helped when I needed psychiatric treatment. She has taken me to the hospital and she has come to see me during visitors’ hours. She was the one who helped me to get a hold on things again and to get back on my medication.
“While I was very ill, I got to interview the minister for health in Greater Copenhagen, together with a professional journalist. I confronted her with my situation and she actually paid attention to me and followed up on some of the problems that we meet as homeless people when we enter the psychiatric system.
“Sometimes it’s not easy to be part of the Hus Forbi family when you are an alcoholic and should not drink. Every other day one of the vendors will stop me and ask ‘Let’s get something to drink.’ Some of them do not understand that I don’t want to drink.
“Come February I will have been in the streets for six years. I have an apartment for loan in four months. But I’m not sure I can be inside it. I am looking for a lodger.”
André keeps a few essential possessions. He listed them for us:
2 Sleeping bags
2 Sleeping pads
Sleeping bag for Odin
Toothbrush and toothpaste
Electric, rechargeable hair trimmer
Needle and thread
First aid kit
Penknife with screwdriver, can opener, knife and everything
Extra clothes in winter
Feed for Odin
Small, wireless portable speaker
Tail light for backpack
Water bottle for André
Water bottle for Odin
Odin’s water bowl
Hus Forbi Bag
“The backpack is a scout’s backpack.
“This is the great model to use for hiking in the mountains. It is built so that there is a small backpack at the back, which can be removed. I can have the most necessary items in the small backpack if I need to go somewhere and have someone to take care of the big bag,” says André.
Things André never leaves
There are things that André always brings with him.
“Odin, my Hus Forbi bag, my vendor card, my phone and my wallet that I always wear. Odin is a boxer mix. I had him when he was nine weeks old. Now he is three years and three months old, and he is my faithful companion.”
André has two sleeping bags and sleeping mats – one for summer and one for winter.
“I have a kid’s sleeping bag for Odin, donated by the Red Cross in Hirtshals, when we were at summer camp with Hus Forbi. I got the sleeping bags from someone in a church in Nørrebrogade. They had them from the Roskilde Festival. One of them can keep you warm in minus five degrees Celsius and the second minus 20 degrees. One sleeping pad is from the military, and you can both blow it up and pour hot water into it. The other is a plain but good sleeping, which I got from my cousin.”
“I always have toothbrush and toothpaste with me. I have false teeth – I had to pay 1,000 kroner [£98 GBP / £144 USD] a month for them, so they must be maintained.”
André has stored some of his things with some friends.
“Therefore I don’t have to drag around everything I own all the time. But most of my things I have with me. Almost all the clothes I have are from Hus Forbi.”
INSP publishes an international vendor story every week. Come back next Wednesday to read another story from one of the thousands of inspirational men and women who sell street papers.