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Homelessness A night at Geneva’s ‘Court of Miracles’

In the heart of Geneva, two civil protection shelters, built as nuclear bunkers, are opened in winter for homeless people. For a few nights, forgotten members of society find a roof over their heads, a bed and some warmth.

Photographer Didier Ruef went to meet the people who live out of sight of the rest of local population.

The men and women who sleep at the shelter come from near and far – locals from Geneva, other Swiss citizens and foreigners. What they almost all have in common is that they have suffered serious blows in life: a failed marriage, losing a job, psychiatric troubles, various addictions or simply a miserable exile.

When the nights become cold, the city of Geneva offers them 200 places to stay in two civil protection shelters. Open from mid-November to the end of March, these relics from the Cold War date from a time when Switzerland wanted to be able to provide underground shelter for its entire population in the case of a nuclear attack. Today they serve as dormitories. Doors open at 7.15 pm, the guests eat soup, may take a shower, they talk for a while and then go to bed. And in the morning, after breakfast, everyone has to leave at 8.15 am.

Accommodation and food are provided free of charge to the most vulnerable. But there is no question of settling at the shelter: no one can spend more than 30 nights there, only renewable on presentation of proof of an emergency. Run by the city authorities, in partnership with various charities, the two shelters welcomed 1,500 people of 65 nationalities during the winter of 2013 / 2014. Each person stayed on average 19 nights, with 58% coming directly from the street and 54% with no income. For all those tormented souls, the shelter is a haven of peace, a place where they can be heard and even a question of survival.

Initially conceived as a hospital, the Richemont shelter is located under an athletics stadium, bordering the Grange Park.

The Cour des miracles ("court of miracles") was a French term which referred to slum districts Paris where the unemployed migrants from rural areas resided in the 17th and 18th centuries.

(Images: Didier Ruef; Text: Marc-André Miserez,

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