Christmas brings cold comfort to homeless

More Swiss shelters have been opened to keep homeless people off the streets Keystone

A year after a homeless woman froze to death in a public toilet in Lausanne, authorities across Switzerland say they are better prepared for this holiday season.

This content was published on December 21, 2002 - 10:56

The number of temporary beds has been increased in many cantons, and more emergency shelters have been opened.

In Lausanne, the 60-year-old woman's death shocked the authorities into action.

"That really shook people up here and since then a lot more has been done to help homeless people," says street priest, Étienne Visinand.

At the beginning of December, Lausanne converted a civilian bunker into a temporary shelter, allowing the city to offer a total of 80 beds.

Geneva too has recently increased its bed supply by 25 places.

Freezing to death

That people live on the streets of Switzerland is not a new phenomenon.

The homeless also include those who drift between the homes of friends and relatives, because they don't have a place of their own.

"After I came off drugs, I lived for nearly two months with my mother, my sister and my grandmother, spending three nights here and there," said Markus*.

"I then spent the night at the homes of colleagues and acquaintances. I had to spend one night on the streets, because I didn't want to ring the bell so late at night."

Where to sleep

"The cold is already upon us. If someone who is exhausted or 'tanked up' falls asleep, [death] can happen again, "says Hans* of the organisation, Kirchliche Gassenarbeit Bern (KGB), which finds beds for people in an emergency.

The issue of shelters and beds for the homeless remains contentious. Although authorities, such as those in canton Bern, say enough are available, this is disputed by some organisations which help the homeless.

"While the beds we offer are in high demand, there is no shortage of supply," said Luc Mentha, general secretary of the social security department in Bern.

The city has already opened a temporary shelter with ten places for drug addicts and is officially offering a total of 43 emergency beds.

"We will find a bed for anyone who asks us," promised Mentha.

He said that apart from publicly provided beds, the homeless could also rely on private shelters, the Salvation Army hostel and sheltered homes.

Salvation Army

The Salvation Army plays an important role in providing temporary shelter.

"In the whole of Switzerland, we have 273 beds reserved for the homeless," says Marianne Lanz, secretary of the social work department.

A Zurich-based priest, Ernst Sieber, has found a novel way of providing more beds. He has parked a trailer with 20 beds, a shower and a toilet in the suburbs of Switzerland's largest town.

Sieber said: "We want to get homeless people into accommodation as quickly and as smoothly as possible."

Hans from the KGB says that it is difficult to find beds for everyone. "It has already happened that we had to send people away because we couldn't find anywhere for them to stay."

"I can't understand why there are not enough beds," says Martin Fund of Gasse z'Nacht, an organisation that distributes hot food on the streets in Bern. "Every winter, I speak to about ten people, who don't have a home at all," Fund says.

Social workers on patrol

Michael Herzig, a drug advisor, works with the "safety, intervention and prevention" project in Zurich which employs unusual methods to get people off the streets for the night.

"We actively search out people and actually force them to go into a institution, if we can't leave them on the streets," explains Herzig.

The police are also sometimes called upon to help out.

"We cannot rule out that someone will freeze to death," says Herzig. "Last winter, we managed to find someone who probably would have frozen to death without our help."

KGB dismissed this method of working. Hans said: "We make offers of overnight accommodation; we do not forcefully remove people's freedom."

swissinfo, Philippe Kropf (translated by Faryal Mirza)

*Names have been changed.

In brief

Many cantons have increased the number of beds available for the homeless.

Last year, a homeless woman froze to death in a public toilet in Lausanne, prompting authorities to take action.

The issue of shelters and beds for the homeless remains contentious in Switzerland. Authorities say enough beds are available but this is disputed by some organisations.

The Salvation Army plays an important role in providing temporary shelter providing 273 beds for the homeless.

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