Beyond the Stadium: Copenhagen

Parken Stadium in Copenhagen is one of the 11 venues across Europe hosting matches for Euro 2020. We spoke to our Danish partner, non-profit organisation Ombold, about what’s going on beyond the stadium and the state of homelessness in Copenhagen.

Man wearing a bright yellow bib controls the ball in a game of street football in front of spectators.

Crowds cheer in the centre of Copenhagen. Credit: Anders Hviid-Haglund

“We’re trying to create a community where the main focus isn’t about drugs or crime, it’s about the love of football.” – Martin Pedersen

After a year and a half of ‘Corona tournaments’ with limited numbers and Covid-19 restrictions, Martin Pedersen is happy to see a return to some sort of normality. Last week in Denmark they hosted a football tournament with more than 200 players – a sharp contrast to their sessions during the height of the pandemic with only five people. 

Martin Petersen - blonde hair and raising his hand while speaking, Director of Ombold speaking to a female member of staff at their first full size football tournament since the pandemic.

Martin at their first full sized tournament since the pandemic. Credit: Anders Hviid-Haglund

Martin is the Director of Ombold, a non-profit organisation that believes sport is for everyone. Founded in 2003, it hosts tournaments and daily drop ins, enabling people from disadvantaged backgrounds across Denmark to play football. A third of their participants are living in shelters, while the other two thirds are struggling with their mental health, substance abuse or are unemployed. Often players can be struggling with a combination. 

Covid-19 impact 

“Like everywhere we had a hard time during Corona.”  – Martin Pedersen

Many of the players lived in shelters throughout the pandemic and struggled with loneliness. Isolation was made worse by many shelters deciding to close communal areas and send staff home.

This meant if people wanted to leave their rooms during the first wave their only option was to go outside. This led many people to staying in their rooms because they were scared of catching the virus. Others fell back into old habits of substance abuse. 

Closing communal areas and sending staff home was met with a huge public backlash. By the second wave it had been reversed.  

Martin described the original decision as “madness”. He said staff were vital in making sure residents were safe and following the rules, while also offering them support. Many organisations were unable to operate during the pandemic. This meant for some their support network disappeared during the tightest lockdowns.

A woman hugging a man in a red football kit.

A welcome return to football. Credit: Anders Hviid-Haglund

Homelessness in Copenhagen 

“I would say homelessness in Denmark is getting worse, especially in Copenhagen where like many other cities, prices have gone sky high. The number of homeless people has been steadily rising year after year. It comes down to affordable housing – this is one of the most important elements in helping to end homelessness.”  

Martin tells us about one young woman in her early twenties who has overcome substance abuse and was formerly engaged in prostitution. She has been living in a shelter for 18 months, double the target amount of time set by the Danish government under their ‘Housing First’ scheme. He explained she’d been on the housing register for a year.

“Everyone knows that in order to get better people need housing. The shelters can’t reach their targets because there are no apartments.” – Martin Pedersen

Sadly, some struggle when they do secure accommodation and fall back into substance abuse. Yoyo-ing between shelters and independent accommodation is a common problem for many. 

Martin says the solution to addressing homelessness in Denmark doesn’t only lie in affordable housing. but also comes down to changing the relationship between flexible employment and welfare. “We need a society where they don’t just take away welfare.”  In Denmark working hours are often fixed making it challenging to find flexible work opportunities. “It’s almost impossible to hire someone for 5-10 hours because their welfare would be removed.” This means people can lose money by working. Despite their best intentions, the Government and local municipality schemes for supporting people who are homeless to find work are highly complex and bureaucratic. This can create more barriers for people who are trying to find work.

Brighter futures 

Two young men wearing football kit smile looking off camera, one has his thumbs up.

Happy to play again. Credit: Anders Hviid-Haglund

This hasn’t stopped Martin and Ombold, they’ve recently hired two former players as coaches. Their life experience and skills they’ve developed as players are invaluable for the team, supporting with recruitment and engaging new and existing players. Both coaches have overcome addiction and are now living independently. Both working part time, 28 hours and 12 hours respectively, they use their life experience to support the players. One is a player coach and still plays for the team. Hopefully both will be able to join the team at the next Homeless World Cup.  

Despite a challenging 18 months, Martin and his team were pleasantly surprised to see between a third and a quarter of people getting a lot better. He thinks this is partly because it gave people an excuse to stay away from certain situations, which enabled them to avoid distraction and temptation.

It’s also been surprising for Martin how their work has changed during the pandemic. “We couldn’t just sit at home and wait for Corona to be over, we had to think alternatively.” 

One substitute was venturing in to the world of e-sports. They asked people to donate PlayStations and people quickly responded. Martin and the team drove around Copenhagen collecting them and delivering them to shelters. This led to a virtual FIFA 2020 League, which grew into a national league with people playing across Denmark. 

Michael Laudrup awards a player a trophy at Ombold tournament in Copenhagen. Credit: Anders Hviid-Haglund

Over the coming weeks, Martin and the players have a packed schedule. After a year of isolation and loneliness they are now at the heart of the action, working closely with UEFA and the Danish national team. To make things even better, their new ambassador international football legend Michael Laudrup will be there to cheer them on.

Find out more

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If you want to find out more about Ombold’s work supporting people who are homeless in Denmark, please visit their website: