Heikki Hursti’s food distribution station is a welcome oasis for people struggling to make ends meet in Helsinki. Hursti, who took over the charity programme when his father died ten years ago, said that he’s seen a disturbing increase in the number of people turning up at the Helsinginkatu food bank for help.
”When we check with this counter, we have had some 2,700 – 2,800 people on each distribution day. And we continually see new people joining the line to get food. And it just tells us that the situation in Finland is not changing for the better,” Hursti said, showing the small mechanical device he uses to count the number of heads coming in.
Within the first hour of our visit to the food bank he had already counted more than 600 individuals receiving food donations. According to Hursti, ten years ago, charity workers would have distributed food to that many people in two days. He said that on occasion, the number of patrons has edged closer to 3,000 and even reached as high as 3,200 in one day.
The rising numbers of patrons aren’t the only cause for concern, Hursti said. He noted that the composition of the queues has also changed over the years.
”There are pensioners, people on disability pensions, the unemployed, people working on short term contracts, and as you can see there are families who come with their children to get food – and naturally we try to give them a bit more than we would give to single people,” Hursti added.
The bread line isn’t just for those who’ve lost their jobs or who have aged out of productive work.
”We also have working people, and since rents are so high for the people who live in the capital area and salaries are small so they simply run out of money and they have to get help from somewhere,” Hursti pointed out.
Increasing demand for charity services
Less than one kilometre from Hursti's food depot, Helsinki's Deaconess Institute provides social and health care services to those in need. Laura Häkökangas is a director of community and volunteer services and currently runs a volunteer team of 600 – a fact that speaks to the need for services to supplement state-run safety net programmes.
”It does seem that young people with difficult issues have found us as a place where they can get help. So the numbers have actually skyrocketed in the past couple of years,” Häkökangas said.
”But also it’s quite clear that the most vulnerable people whatever their age are seeking help and there is a greater number of them, because some of the services directed to them have been cut. So they need more support from somewhere else,” she added.
The incoming government is still hammering out a detailed plan for managing the economy. Prime Minister-designate Juha Sipilä has already hinted at indirect cuts such as a freeze on index increases paid on social benefits.
Häkökangas said that there are concerns that possible social spending cuts – direct or indirect – could put an additional squeeze on vulnerable groups in society.
”I think everyone is concerned that if and when there are cuts, they might focus on the same people who are already at risk of becoming socially excluded or are extremely vulnerable, such as householder families or single people who have been unemployed for a long time,” Häkökangas noted.
”So if the new government should cut unemployment benefits or housing benefits for instance at the same time, that would be a great blow to those families and people and it would actually throw their economies off-balance,” the community worker added.
Food bank dependent on public generosity
Back on Helsinginkatu, Hursti is also worried about how he’ll be able to continue to make a difference for those who have nowhere else to turn to for help.
”When we think about the government negotiations that are going on now, there’s some harsh language about compulsory cuts. And when those cuts are done of course they will affect everyone, but they will most affect low income earners and I think that’s very sad. And that will probably increase the number of people in these food lines,” Hursti said.
Hursti’s charity programme runs entirely on the goodwill of corporate and individual sponsors. Small private donors may contribute 10 euros a month, while large food retailers donate much of the food items that are distributed three times weekly, he noted. Apart from support from the city of Helsinki, which pays rent for the food bank premises, Hursti said the operation has no state support.
”We haven’t got a single euro from the state,” he concluded.