Skype solidarity for vendors from Montréal to Copenhagen: “We are the voice of the voiceless”

L’Itinéraire vendor Norman Rickert, from Montréal, reflects on what he learned from his Danish colleague Henrik, who sells Hus Forbi in Copenhagen. They recently spoke about their experiences of homelessness and selling street papers for #VendorWeek.

By Norman Rickert, L’Itinéraire vendor

In honor of #VendorWeek, I had the pleasure of talking with Henrik, a vendor just like me, who sells the street magazine Hus Forbi in Denmark. We both came to the conclusion that there are a lot of similarities between us.

Vendors Norman and Henrik talk on Skype. Photo: Simon Posnic

My karma must be Scandinavian. After having read a novel by Stieg Larsson, the popular Swedish writer best-known for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I read another by an Icelandic novelist, then a book about a Norwegian family saga. Now I am going through a crime novel where the action takes place in Denmark, mainly in Copenhagen. You may wonder, dear readers, why I am focusing on books instead of talking about the interview. Well… I have to admit that I feel particularly attracted to that region of the world. When I was asked if I wanted to speak with a vendor in Denmark, I realised that there were sometimes strange coincidences in life. So I didn’t hesitate and said yes.

The interview was done through Skype. As I am an incorrigible night-owl, I had to get up early for our virtual rendezvous at 9am. I didn’t have a choice because of the time zones. For my counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic, it was 3pm.

Henrik is 45 and lives in Hillerød, a small town north of Copenhagen. He has been a vendor at Hus Forbi for six years now. His life story is a lot like the vendors here at L’Itinéraire. He had a job, was married, but was a drug addict. One day in 2002, his wife had enough and threw him out. He lived on the street on and off, up until 2010. “Thanks to the municipality of Hillerød, I have been living in a subsidised apartment for the past three years,” says Henrik.

My own life experience was less difficult, but I went through some periods of extreme poverty because of the economic context, and also because I made some pretty bad life choices.

I asked Henrik what it was like to be homeless in his country. “Homelessness is a growing problem in Denmark, and people here are becoming more and more aware of the situation,” he said. Recent statistics suggest there could be as many as 6,000 homeless people in Denmark, out of a population of 5.5 million. That is very similar to our situation in Quebec. According to a 2015 census, there are a little more than 3,000 homeless people in Montréal alone.

Hus Forbi vendor Henrik. Photo: Lars Ertner

Henrik is also a vice president of Hus Forbi’s board of directors. He told me that his board was going to hold a General Meeting on the following day. “Usually, our meetings are quite animated and even get turbulent at times,” he says.

“Same with us!” I answer.

My Danish counterpart doesn’t write in his magazine, but he sometimes participates in articles with the help from the street paper’s journalists and editor.

Listening to Henrik talk was a bit like looking at myself in a mirror 6,000 kilometres away.

“In our magazine, we talk about homelessness, social justice, topics that relate to our vendors. We are the voice of the voiceless,” he says. “Hey, that was L’Itinéraire’s slogan a few years back!” I tell Henrik.

Hus Forbi is really well-regarded in Denmark. The vendors of the Danish magazine come from all walks of life. In general, they are people who have or still face addiction problems and social exclusion.

Did you know that Hus Forbi is the most popular magazine in Denmark? I would like to be able to say the same about L’Itinéraire in Canada. Henrik adds: “We sell all over Denmark, around 80,000 copies a month.”

Henrik works in the morning, starting at 9am and goes home at around 3pm. He sells 250 – 300 copies a month. That’s about the same number of issues that I sell. However, people who know me will tell you that I only work in the afternoon.

Henrik showed me where he lives by turning his laptop around. It is a one bedroom apartment, pretty much like what you would find in Montréal. As for the weather, Henrik explained that it had not started snowing yet, but that they were expecting some later in the month (Montréal is already covered in snow).

Henrik can always be found selling at the same spot. People know him, and even though a lot of people ignore him, he doesn’t hesitate to approach them and say hello. “I even have a client, a retired professor, who knighted me, just for fun, just like the Queen would. He calls me Sir Henrik of Hillerød,” he tells me proudly.

As for me, no one has ever treated me like a king or a prince, but it shouldn’t be long now. Sometimes people call me ‘sir’, which is better than getting vacant stares or even scornful glances. I imagine that Henrik experiences the same on his side of the world…

Translated from French to English by Josée Panet-Raymond, L’Itinéraire editor-in-chief. This article originally appeared in a special #VendorWeek edition of L’Itinéraire in February 2016.