Homeless battle a deadly winter

Mario Stegmann sits on a bed in Sleeper, a homeless shelter he runs in Bern

As temperatures sink to bitter lows across Switzerland, social workers say more of the country's homeless are looking for help to survive the frigid nights.

This content was published on January 8, 2009

From Basel to Zurich and beyond, homeless shelters are nearing capacity and at least one homeless man – a young drug addict in Zurich – has already died this winter from exposure.

It was a death that could have been avoided had help reached him in time, said Mark Wiedmer, spokesman for Priest Sieber Social Work, an agency that helps Switzerland's poor.

"People shouldn't freeze to death in a rich city like Zurich," he told swissinfo.

"Sometimes people are too sick to see that they won't survive the night. It's been colder for longer than people think. Whether it's five degrees or minus ten, anything below eight degrees is really dangerous for people who are spending the night outside."

Wiedmer says it's nearly impossible to pinpoint how many people are without a roof in Switzerland this winter but that demand for emergency shelter is clearly bigger at the moment.

"Many places here are fully booked or nearly fully booked," he said. "Last year we added 20 supplementary beds (on top of more than 100 beds available in the Zurich area) and those are all taken."

Bar with beds

Mario Stegmann runs a shelter in the capital, Bern, and knows all too well the hardships that face Switzerland's homeless each winter because he himself was once out on the street.

Now 50 years old with white dreadlocks and a stained beard, Stegmann was sleeping wherever he could – with friends, on benches, under bridges – when he helped start a privately run shelter called Sleeper now near the city's railway station.

It's -4 outside with an angry and aggressive wind when Stegmann answers the door. Sleeper's windows are broken and the paint is chipped but radiators inside hiss with warmth.

Stegmann points out the kitchen where he offers a menu of soup and meat for SFr5 ($4.57). Upstairs are 16 bunk beds with tired but thick mattresses. All are taken but one.

"We have people staying here from Morocco, a guy from Ghana, but mostly Switzerland," he said.

"When we have no more beds we'll put mattresses on the floor. I can't tell someone they have to spend the night outside when it's cold like this," he says. Once he had to provide shelter for 45 people.

The house is eerily quiet at the moment. Stegmann does not have the staff to remain open during the day, so residents must leave each morning and can return after 10pm. Many play music on the street to earn the SFr5 a night it costs to stay there, including a breakfast of bread and jam.

While Bern has five shelters run with public money, Stegmann funds Sleeper through a bar downstairs called Dead End.

Experts note that alcoholism and drug abuse are often factors that contribute to homelessness but Stegmann says he screens patrons by issuing membership cards to those he feels won't cause trouble.

"We only allow smoking hashish or marijuana," he says in English, having learned the language through music. "No junkies. I don't have equipment here if someone overdoses and I don't need needles under my toilet."

Holes in the safety net

Homelessness, at least in theory, should not exist in a place like Switzerland, says Christian Haas, manager of Basel's Tageshaus, a day home where those on the street can come for a warm drink and get information on how to find help.

"No one would chose to be homeless and on paper there is a safety net that is supposed to prevent this," he said.

If people run into financial trouble or face eviction in Switzerland, social services in communities can give them help to make ends meet.

"In Switzerland it's never a question of money," added Markus Nafzger, homeless services coordinator for the city of Bern. He estimates ten to 15 people are currently living in the open in the capital. "The problem here is not like in the US or England."

But Haas says often the people who need help the most suffer from psychological problems that keep them from going through the necessary steps to secure the funds.

"You need to be very competent, professionally and socially, to live in Switzerland," he said.

"If you have psychological problems you can't remember that you have an appointment with social services on Tuesday at 8am every week."

swissinfo, Tim Neville

In brief

Social workers from Geneva to St Gallen say they are well prepared to help the homeless this winter, which has seen temperatures drop into the negative 20s.

In many cities across Switzerland police will bring homeless people to emergency shelters while citizens in places like Zurich can call hotlines for help if they see someone braving a frigid night in the open.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, summer time is typically the busiest season for homeless shelters as more people become more transient.

Bern and Geneva have roughly 315 beds combined. Basel currently has about 75 beds.

Often in Switzerland a homeless person can only stay in a public shelter located in the area in which they are registered.

Shelters often charge residents to stay. Fees range from SFr1-15 and social services often provides the money to cover those fees.

The problem, says Markus Nafzger, coordinator of the city of Bern's homeless services, is that some people will use that money for drugs instead.

End of insertion
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