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Holiday camp offers getaway for the homeless

A Club Med of a different kind outside Geneva Keystone

As holiday destinations go, the Hameau des Chemineaux (Vagabonds' Hamlet) just outside Geneva is unlikely to win too many stars for comfort.

The accommodation – two railway wagons fitted with hammocks – is spartan to say the least, but those behind the project reckon there’ll be no shortage of guests.

Dubbed Club Med for the homeless, the Hameau des Chemineaux is the brainchild of Noël Constant, who runs the Geneva-based welfare organisation Carrefour-Rue.

Founded more than a decade ago, the charity relies wholly on public subsidies and private donations – SFr860,000 ($684,000) last year – to run a range of services including a homeless shelter, community housing, soup kitchens, washing facilities and even a newspaper.

Last year 7,800 breakfasts were served from its red double-decker bus parked at the rear of the city’s train station.

Now Carrefour-Rue has branched out into the holiday trade to offer a temporary getaway from life on the streets for those who have fallen on hard times.

“It’s Club Med for the disadvantaged,” the charity’s founder Constant told swissinfo. “The idea is to give people who don’t usually have the means or opportunity to take a holiday the chance to find some peace and gather strength over a few days or weeks.”

Peace and tranquillity

While guests can forget about duck-down duvets and room service, tranquillity is in plentiful supply.

Lying at the end of a dirt track on the edge of the village of Loex, the Hameau sits in a peaceful glade, seemingly a world away from the busy streets of Geneva.

But as Constant points out, while it is just a “few steps away” from the waters of the River Rhone and nature, the city is within easy reach. Those eager to experience a bucolic lifestyle can just hop on the number 43 bus, which stops in the village.

In all there are six railway wagons, catering for sleeping, eating, washing and entertainment. The “restaurant cars” offer both indoor and al fresco dining facilities, while the “Paradisio” wagon features banked seating and a wide-screen TV.

All have been lovingly decked out, especially the “Dormitoriums” which have colourful murals depicting deserts, forests and the sea.

Fredo, who works as a rickshaw driver for Carrefour-Rue, briefly tested out the sleeping arrangements and gave them the thumbs-up.

As for recreation, there is ping-pong, table football, mini-golf, chess, pétanque and a theatre. At the heart of the site stands a Mongolian yurt – a collective space for talk and contemplation.

“For many years we have been able to offer food and shelter but today that is not enough,” said Constant. “What most people lack is spiritual sustenance.”

Under the stars

The Hameau can sleep up to a dozen people and will be open all year round. Additional hammocks can be hung outside in summer and Constant joked that with global warming this should soon be possible in December as well.

The entire installation was built on the back of lottery funding and donations. The wagons came from an artistic organisation that no longer needed them and local firms installed electricity, water and drainage. Solar power is also on the cards.

The biggest headache was finding a suitable site. But intervention by Canton Geneva’s justice and police director, Laurent Moutinot, finally ended a two-year search in the spring of 2005.

Moutinot, who attended the Hameau’s inauguration on September 15, said it had all been well worth the wait.

“It’s a unique facility for people who are excluded and brings them closer to the rest of the population,” he told swissinfo. “Personally, I think it’s magnificent.”

In fact the only cloud on the horizon is one that all of us can relate to. “Unfortunately, at some point all holidays have to end,” said Constant.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

In 2005:

The Coulou homeless centre’s beds were occupied on 6,225 occasions.
The Jardin de Montbrillant soup kitchen served 43,680 meals.
100-150 people eat there every day.

Carrefour-Rue was set up by Noël Constant in 1995 to provide food and shelter for the homeless and those in need. It says it is seeing a growing number of people out on the street.

Its many activities include the Coulou homeless centre, the Jardin de Montbrillant soup kitchen and Ali Baba’s Caves, a store selling bric-a-brac.

It also manages eight houses and 29 studios where those who have been made homeless can find their feet again.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR