Homeless in Switzerland during the pandemic

Klaus Petrus

Coronavirus affects businesses, schools, industry - in fact all of us. But what about people on the margins of society? The pandemic has also turned the lives of marginalised people upside down. A report by Klaus Petrus.

This content was published on June 13, 2020 - 11:00
Klaus Petrus (photos and text), Ester Unterfinger (picture editor)

There are supposedly 400 such vulnerable people in the city of Bern alone. Just as in the rest of Switzerland, no-one knows the exact figures. People without a permanent home, addicts and sex workers are all affected - less by the pandemic, they say, than by the government imposed counter measures. Some cannot stay at home, even if they want to, because they have no home.

C, 46, two children, jobless, homeless

"My life has been full of ups and downs. These cursed drugs, the alcohol, the bottom line is that it hits you. But I'm still alive. I believe in myself and that everything has a deeper meaning."

L, 35, one child, jobless, homeless

“I stand here and beg for the 25 francs I need every day. People sometimes bring me food, they hand me a can of beer, a few cigis. There are times when I hope for a miracle, at least a small one. But miracles also vanish the next day. I will sleep outside tonight, where I don't know yet." Klaus Petrus

P, 49, three children, sex worker

“I used to get five or six clients a night, but now maybe two. Prices are clearly depressed. I know of girls who do it for 30 francs, all inclusive. It's bad. Fortunately, I have regular customers. They still come, corona or not." Klaus Petrus

N, 36, jobless, homeless

"Love, affection, tenderness - I never experienced any of that. My parents were addicted, they had other worries and never had time for me. I took drugs for the first time when I was 14, but I only fully when I was in my mid-20s. Of course it is hard as a woman in the alley, you always have to be careful. I would never prostitute myself - it's not only a question of hygiene and health, but also of dignity. I prefer to beg on the street where many people are friendly. Now, because of Corona, it's more difficult. People stay at home, I'm constantly lacking money. A few days ago I had to give my dog away which was bad. But life on the street was even worse for him. I'm actually confident: I'm only in my mid-thirties, I have my life ahead of me. Right?" Klaus Petrus

D, 34, jobless, homeless

“I kneel in front of people when I beg for money. I know this is a blatant gesture, but I'm only showing that I don't feel that begging is unworthy. I don't force anyone, I don't harm anyone, I'm not a criminal. I'm begging, that's all. On good days I made 100 to 120 francs - but now maybe 40 since the corona pandemic." Klaus Petrus

L, 53, one child, jobless, homeless

"I once had a lot of plans. So many plans. I told myself: 'As soon as I'm clean, I'll do this and that'. Believe me, I've told myself a lot - I was pretty good at it. Today I am realistic. I am old, addicted, have no work, sleep on the street, so let's not talk about it: my life is over. Okay, maybe things will change and I'll actually make it again. But not now." Klaus Petrus
Outside can mean between a chair and a bench in a park, in front of a garage, on a staircase, in the bushes, under a bridge. There on a pillar, T, 38, addicted for 20 years, will also wrap himself in a fleece tonight. Klaus Petrus

D, 38, addicted for 20 years, jobless, homeless

"I try to think positively. Winter, for example, was mild. Just imagine what it would have been like with cold nights, a few in a row, with rain, maybe even snow. But that's how it is, somehow. I can hardly sleep outside but I need five francs for the emergency sleeping shelter. Sometimes I have the money, but often I don't. Now there are almost no people outside, which makes it even more difficult. But every day that I get through is a victory. That's how I see it." Klaus Petrus

T, 38, jobless, homeless

"Now that the streets are empty, you can see us everywhere. And people are already pointing their fingers at us: just look at them! Before then we were practically invisible. But we always there. How do we endure the corona crisis? For us this means perseverance - now, before, always." Klaus Petrus

Spaces at emergency sleeping shelters in Swiss cities have been restricted to comply with federal distancing rules. Only one person is permitted to sleep in a four-bed room and two people in rooms with six beds. As a result, people have been turned away from shelters. Various organisations have weighed in to help. Charities and church associations have provided funds to rent hotel rooms, set up containers and convert buildings to make more beds available.

Food services hit

Another unwanted side-effect of the government's Covid-19 regulations has been disruptions to food services. For example, the organization “Tischlein deck dich” (“Set Your Table”), which distributes surplus food from supermarkets to 20,000 people every week, had to partially discontinue its service because the safety distance between volunteers and beneficiaries could not be maintained when serving food. Many volunteers were at risk from Covid-19 because of their age.

Homeless figures

There are to date no reliable statistics on homelessness in Switzerland. The only data available relates to the city of Basel. This is confirmed by Esther Mühlethaler, a research assistant at the FNHW School of Social Work who was involved in the Basel study. Her team is currently working on the first national quantitative survey on homelessness to be conducted and published in 2021.

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Donation fences have been set up in most Swiss cities where people can hang up and collect sacks of groceries, clothes or hygiene items. Klaus Petrus

Civil society groups are trying to fill these gaps by offering food in publicly accessible refrigerators or by distributing it in public places. These activities are only possible with financial support. At the end of March, the Catholic Church in canton Bern launched an unprecedented campaign that swiftly provided CHF1 million ($1 million) in emergency aid. Much of the money went to social institutions that help people living in poverty and others on the margins of society.

The dwindling services on offer has also affected the daily structure of people’s lives. Social contact has become limited to mixing with others in alleyways. Meeting areas, contact points and street work are significantly restricted. Many homeless people are in the high-risk group, not so much because of their age, but because of their ailing health. Rahel Gall Azmat, director of the addiction support foundation Contact, fears that fewer drugs will be in circulation. “If drugs are scarce, they tend to be stretched thin, and this can have fatal health consequences - in the worst case, overdose deaths.”

Klaus Petrus works as a freelance photo-journalist and reporter. He is interested in the themes of social conflicts, armed conflict, migration and social exclusion. He reports for national and international newspapers and magazines from Switzerland, the Middle East, the Balkans and sub-Saharan Africa. Filmmaker Konstantin Flemig interviewed Petrus about working in crisis areas in his book “Everyday in Hell”.

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