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Coronavirus crisis drives panhandlers from Helsinki streets

Quiet streets have dried up the main sources of income for many rough sleepers in Finland.

Tiggande kvinna som sitter på huk på gatan.
Image: Mostphotos

While most Helsinki residents hunker down in their homes during the partial state of emergency caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak, operators of homeless shelters say that their facilities have fewer occupants than usual.

Specifically, Roma people who had long been a fixture on city streets no longer appear to be spending their nights there.

"We have noticed this. More than half have returned to their home countries," said Mika Paasolainen, service director of the Deaconess Institute.

The charitable organisation runs two emergency shelters for itinerant people for Helsinki. The larger space is usually nearly full of Roma people originally from Bulgaria and Romania, he explained.

Big reduction in numbers

Paasolainen added that instead of the usual 170 - 200 rough sleepers, nowadays around 80 can be found at the facility. He said that the reduced footfall in normally-busy streets caused by the emergency measures is one factor behind their near disappearance from Helsinki.

"One reason that they come is income, and now that is gone," he noted.

One of the panhandlers' major source of income comes from selling Iso Numero, a street paper sold by homeless and low-income vendors that is regarded as Finland's version of the UK's The Big Issue. They also collect returnable bottles and redeem them for cash or beg for money.

However the pandemic has put an end to street sales of Iso Numero, while the city's largely deserted streets do not lend themselves to collecting bottles or asking passersby for spare change.

Another reason for the sparse numbers these days is the desire of Bulgarian and Romanian Roma to return home to be with loved ones, Paasonen speculated.

"Those who have money to leave to be with their families and children have done so. They feared that if Finland closes its borders they would not be able to return home," he added.

The majority of eastern European Roma can usually be found in the Helsinki region. Paasolainen said he assumed that the situation is much the same in other parts of the country.

"I would say that from the perspective of earning money the situation is equally bad elsewhere too."

He said that he expects them to return to Finland once the pandemic has subsided.

Social distancing for occupants

Although the shelters' regular occupants are no longer around, Paasolainen said that the space can still be used. For safety reasons, the facility can no longer accommodate as many people as it used to.

"We have spread out the accommodation more. That way we can have an adequate distance between people so that there is less contagion," he explained.

The Deaconness Institute has also been housing homeless Finns in the emergency shelters.

Homeless people are at greater risk of contracting novel coronavirus because of their situation. However Paasolainen said that so far there was no information to suggest that anyone using the shelter had tested positive for the virus.

The institute's smaller shelter is usually reserved for people whose asylum applications have been denied by Finnish authorities. According to Paasolainen, the epidemic has had no effect on the number of undocumented people using the facility.

"They do not have the same option to return as other itinerant folk," he pointed out.

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