The NightWalkers

At the end of February 2009 I started working on a photo essay about poverty and homelessness in Helsinki. It was very cold and as I am from a Mediterranean climate, it was completely unimaginable that someone was living outside. Somebody told me that there are at least 500 people without a permanent address in Helsinki. Many of the homeless sleep in dormitories and spend the rest of the day walking around the city, warming themselves inside trams or metro stations etc… Some people don’t take advantage of the dormitories because don’t like to sleep in the same room with other people or they don’t like the strict rules enforced there. Most of those who cannot respect the rules end up sleeping in Kalkkers and here is where my story begins.

It’s midnight, a dark and extremely cold Finnish winter night. The queue in front of the door is long and everybody is cursing the cold and the long wait.  Most of the people are drunk. The door remains closed even though Kalkkers should now be open (at 12 in the night). Finally the door opens, but the two social workers only let in two people at a time.  This makes for an unbearably slow process and increases the frustration of those waiting outside, but finally everyone is given refuge inside.  The reason for the delay is because the workers must check that no alcohol is smuggled into the facility. The people entering are checked and all the bags are placed inside a locker. The large communal room reeks of urine and alcohol, but at least it’s warm.  There are five tables inside, each surrounded by five chairs. There are no beds. If someone wants to sleep, he/she must do it in a chair, leaning his/her head and arms on a table. The customers of Kalkkers can come here only nine days in a row. On the tenth night they have to find another place to sleep. This is meant to encourage them to find better place to sleep, but nobody ever finds a better place and after a night of pilgrimage around the city they all come back to Kalkkers. Everybody staying in Kalkkers has a different story to share with me. Some of them tell me how they became homeless at the end of the eighties, during the economical depression in Finland. Teemu, one of the oldest homeless I have met, narrates the story of his pilgrimages around Europe as a homeless person. With a smile he remembers the trip he took to the Caribbean Islands with his parents when he was a child. I ask him about his golden rings; I notice that the bigger one is just a cover for a thin wedding ring. His smile becomes melancholic: “I was married once” he says “but my wife is now dead”. After that he withdraws, I had touched an aching point. I was readily accepted by the homeless staying at Kalkkers. Being a foreigner helped, nobody judged my broken Finnish there, for them I am also someone existing in the borderline of this society.

The layouts of the book are made in collaboration with Piia Aho and Stefania Passera.