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Bringing the homeless in from the cold

Persuading homeless people to accept free hot food and shelter is not always straightforward

(Pixsil)

As Europe is enveloped in sub-zero temperatures, swissinfo speaks to Silvio Flückiger, whose Pinto team conducts "cold patrols" in Bern to give the homeless shelter.

Winter always takes its toll on people who have nowhere to go but the streets. Already one man has died in Zurich as a result of the cold.

Pinto's creed is prevention, intervention and tolerance. The main task currently facing the nine-person group is to intervene before anything happens to the homeless. It could be a matter of life or death.

Bern has a total of 215 beds in five institutions, enough to meet the demand for emergency accommodation.

swissinfo: Ten to 15 homeless people in Bern prefer to spend the night outside rather than in an emergency shelter. Who are they?

S.F.: The ones who reject all offers of help are often drug or alcohol dependent or are mentally ill. They feel marginalised and end up homeless, perhaps because they have previously had bad experiences with the authorities. As homeless people, they create a space for themselves in which they feel they have more freedom of movement. That's why they won't accept even the most basic rules.

All strata of society and all age groups are affected. Most of them are Swiss. The bulk of them are men. Women are more likely to find a friend who will put them up. Some trade sex for a night's accommodation.

swissinfo: During this current cold spell organisations in various European cities are collecting homeless people from the streets and taking them to heated emergency shelters. What is the Pinto team doing?

S.F.: We go round at night and talk to homeless people, trying to persuade them to go to sheltered premises. Since there are more possibilities open for them by day, we try to reach them in the daytime as well. In a small town like Bern it's easier.

swissinfo: Your work requires great sensitivity. What else?

S.F.: Good soft skills and not to be nervous about coming into contact with these people. There's no set way of approaching them. Every one is different, so we talk to every one in a different way.

We talk to them about their situation and the reason for their homelessness. Then we see if the person is prepared to come with us, because that's voluntary. We can't force anyone to go to a house or an institution.

swissinfo: How do they react?

S.F.: Mostly positively. But we recently talked to one man who is homeless and wanted to stay that way. He reacted negatively because he was afraid of being compulsorily hospitalised. Although that isn't something that we do, this man practically took to his heels.

swissinfo: What do you do when someone absolutely refuses to go to sheltered premises?

S.F.: When we see that someone isn't sufficiently fitted out, we give him a winter sleeping bag. If someone is suffering from hypothermia, we take him to a canteen or to our office where he can have a warm meal or a warm drink.

swissinfo: Pinto also works with the police. When do you call on them?

S.F.: We are not some kind of search party for the police, since we don't have the same tasks, and nor do the police tell us what to do. But in specific cases we do work with the police.

In the case of homeless people this only happens if someone is at serious risk. This would be the case if we believed they might not survive the night or would suffer lasting harm if they stayed out but they refuse to accompany us to an institution. Then we do request police help for the purpose of protecting this person.

They can accompany the person to Bern's Inselspital hospital where doctors and psychologists can order them to be committed for compulsory medical care.

swissinfo: Do some people end up being permanently homeless?

S.F.: Experience shows that only a few people remain homeless for a long period. Most spend just one or two nights outside, then they find friends or relations or people they know to put them up.

The aim of our job is to get people off the streets. Even someone who spends a long time there gets it sorted out sooner or later and gets a roof over their head and a structure to their day so they can say goodbye to homelessness.

swissinfo-interview: Renat Künzi

In brief

Similiar services like the Pinto team are in place around other Swiss cities. In Zurich, a group called Priest Sieber Social Work has begun a project called Action Cold that helps the homeless with 50 warm beds. Police patrols also look for people who might not survive the night and bring them to emergency shelters.

In November a young, homeless drug addict in Zurich died from the cold. Experts say the danger of a homeless person not surviving a night in the open increases dramatically once temperatures drop below eight degrees Celsius.

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 minus 20s.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, summer is typically the busiest season for homeless shelters.

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

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.

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