When reality strikes back

If you volunteer, like I do, in a free-shop, or to re-distribute food, you get confronted with the harsh reality people face. Especially those, who have not choice but to live on the streets. And especially in winter.

Rents are going up here. People, even with jobs, can’t afford a place to live.

We now have the biggest slum in Germany. People who made “houses” out of old pellets and broken tents. Since they are camping out on private property, the government can’t even provide the barest necesseties, such as toilets. They only stop people building fires to stay warm. The risk of the whole place burning down is just too big.

While saving the food on the market, I also spot two huge bags of shoes. Since it is raining a bit, we decide to save those shoes too. There are also a lot of children’s shoes. One of us volunteers to not just bring the food to the “slum”, but also the shoes. Because we know, in that slum, there also families with kids.

Since a few weeks, a young couple has made their home under the bridge. They even put up a mirror againt the bridge walls. Three doggies are leashed to shopping carts, and two mountain bikes are parked against them. She’s reading a book. He goes for some quick shopping.  It’s not that they lack money. They just can’t afford a place to live. In the shopping carts, there are pots & pans. They still haven’t lost hope to get a real roof over their heads.

When I bike around with the saved food, I see the homeless people everywhere. Huddled in blankets. Layer of layer to keep warm. They call it “zwiebeln”, “onionizing”. And yes, they drink. To get a false feeling of warmth. To numb themselves. I spot a guy hiding behind some stuff a shop put outside. A huge blanket around his shoulders. Every now and then turning to face the wall, and take a quick sip of a cheap bottle of wine. Ignored by all the people doing their xmas-shopping. When I ask him if he needs food, he doesn’t say anything. Just looks at me. Shakes his head. Huddles back into his blanket. As if he gave up already.

A bit further another guy stands near his shopping cart. I know him. He comes in the free-shop. He’s “confused”. Wears a huge dirty winter coat with stuffed animals pinned to them. When he’s in the shop, he’s very chatty and laughing a lot. Though his logic is hard to follow. Gathers some warm stuff, a book, and another stuffed animal to pin to his coat. Then tells us, he needs to go back to his “wagon”. Only when I saw him with the shopping cart, I realize with “wagon” he meant his cart…

By now, it is so cold, the homeless don’t even have the energy to beg. And it is  warm for the time of the year. The real winter still has to show up.

Sometimes you can do something, however small, for even a short time. Offer a few hours of staying inside and warmth. Tea. Soup. Warm clothes. Dry socks.

The free-shop is almost out of winter coats and thick sweaters. Socks are always short. Luckily we still have a huge supply of scarfs, beanies and gloves. An elderly lady brought knitted gloves today. A young woman comes in, rubbing her hands. Only wearing a jeans jacket. Perfect make-up. From her accent, I guess she’s spanish or so. We guess she’s a party tourist, unprepared for the cold here. So she’s very happy with the gloves and very fashionable scarf-with-hood I found for her.

Another woman comes in. She does volunteer work with refugees and elderly people. Normally we have a rule of no more than 5 items per person per visit. But she roams the bookshelves for books elderly people love. Books most of our visitors aren’t to keen on, love stories and such. So please take as many as you want. Though she has a bad leg and needs crutches, she reaches for the top shelves, and I help her to load all the books on her bike, plus warm stuff for the refugees, so she can bring them to the people she cares for. She thanks me for the existence of the shop. And I know, this woman with her bad leg will go way over her limits to help other people.

Today I also brought soup to my shift in the free shop. On the way, I meet one of my “favorite” homeless people. In summer, he’s very lively. A very intelligent older man. Though he lives in the park, he does volunteer work. He’s one of the “mediators” in the park, the other homeless hold him in very high regard. But today, he’s staggering. He drank to keep warm. I tell him there will be soup soonish in the free shop, but I know that information didn’t really hit home…

I’m always very early for my shift. To prepare the rooms and that kind of stuff. There’s a guy sitting outside. Obviously waiting for the shop to open and get warm. I tell him there will be soup soonish, but he has to stay outside till my colleague arrives. A bit later I let him in anyway, I can’t really let him sit outside in the cold… He stays till almost the end, he can’t wait for the soup to get hot and the coffee. And the warmth, he fell asleep against the heating. One of our other regulars is going to save some food, to bring it to one of the homeless shelters. He takes the guy with him. That way, if he arrives with the food, there’s a bigger chance for him to get a bed. Though it also means someone won’t get that bed. The shelters are always filled up to the max.

And they are only for “legal” people. People with papers. My colleague finds one of our regulars on the streets. Sitting bare-chested on a bench. She takes him in. Feeds him soup.  Tea. I find him later under our book-shelves. Reading. We try to talk to him. But though his german is excellent, he is “confused”. At the end of our shift, we tell him he has to leave. He knows. He goes. Thanks us. His face, the almost tear-filled eyes, will hunt me for days…

You need to harden your heart sometimes. We can’t let the people stay in our shop after we’re closed. We can’t provide the help they need. We’re just a frikkin’ free shop. But the shelters are full. The first people have frozen to death. There are just too many people on the streets, and their number is increasing. Because the rents keep going up..

The only thing you can do is the small things. For a few hours. And try to harden your heart. But it is really, really hard sometimes… And when at night, I built my little nest of blankets and cat, I can’t help but to count my blessings, and how lucky I am. And the last thoughts before I fall asleep are with the people in the slum, under the bridges and in the parks….

Impressions – Random Snapshots of Humanity

Random snapshots of people in a big city’s underside – how human we are…

  • Mummy takes her little son along to the giveaway shop to bring the toys she sorted out. He sees a box with toy cars to be given away on our shelves. Shouts out: wow, those are exactly the same cars as the ones we have at home. Mum tries not to look guilty. She was here last week too to bring stuff and secretly unloads another bag of toys behind his back.
  • Foodsaving brunch. A guy with bad teeth and probably no money to spare loads up his plate, and fills a container for a friend. First time here, and he thanks us so much: his housebound friend only gets 10 minutes a day for household help, barely enough time to warm up a microwave meal. And finally he can bring his friend real, good, food. He’s so happy, not so much for his own plate, as for the tasty food he can bring his friend.
  • A homeless guy has taken up residence on one of the wooden benches in front of the free shop. No matter how much we try to convince him to come in and get some free hot tea and cake in a warm place, he proudly refuses, and rolls up in his sleeping bag. The evening before I had a little chat with him. He enjoys the clear skies and the stars, even yes, it is actually too cold to sleep outside. One of my colleagues tells me, the only offer he actually took up, was the offer of the house to take a shower. When I leave the giveaway shop, there’s loud snoring coming from the sleeping bag, and I notice someone passing by has covered his sleeping bag with another blanket.
  • A team of people comes in half-frozen through the wet snow for the hot soup at the foodsaving brunch .They just organized a friendly football match with a group of refugees who just arrived in the neighborhood,. One of them asks me in the kitchen if it’s ok if the refugee team joins us for the food too. Of course. The only problem is, just one week ago, when the foodsavers found out about the shelter and started bringing food to the refugees, they were told they sometimes get too much food, and well.. now that food is saved and brought to the brunch. So those refugees might actually get the leftovers of their last night’s meal if they join us today.
  • One of our regular guests in the giveaway shop is in desperate need for help. She’s more an alternative minded person and likes bright colors and “india” fabric. But now she has to attend a classical concert of her grand daughter, who gave her a “dress code”. We have a lot of fun dressing her up in “classical” style… and she is semi-shocked, but also pretty satisfied when she sees the result in the mirror.
  • Foodsaving on the week market, and we have like boxes and boxes of prunes which need to be eaten the same day. Me and a new foodsaver bring it to one of the house projects, where they organize “cooking and eating with and for homeless people”. Immediately we are invited for the food, but no, we just want to get rid of the prunes. Quickly the plans are made for prune pie, and the spokesperson, in between calmly pointing out to a homeless lady “no smoking while other people eat” tells us there’s another initiative for involving homeless people to help themselves, but the source for the food ingredients is drying up, He emphasizes it is so important not to treat homeless people as if they are little kids, but to take them serious so they can get themselves out of that situation, with a little support. The guy obviously knows from personal experience what he is talking about, and you noticed how much the (still) homeless people respect him.
  • A woman comes in the giveaway shop with two little refugee boys. One speaks a bit of german, the other one only english. Big-eyed they look at all that stuff, and shyly ask if they can take some of the board games and puzzles. The woman tells them not to take everything, but leave enough for other kids. They politely nod, and make an obviously huge effort not to go wild on the cakes we offer for free. Then a bunch of german school kids storm the place… going through all the cakes, and the shelves. When I put a hold to their enthusiasm the moment they want to take a pair of crutches, they tell me, ok, they would only take stuff if they could really use it, for a school play or so, and then return it. After watching this, the refugee kids lose some of their shyness, and not only happily consume their cakes, but also find out there’s a piano… Which after 10 minutes, we wished they hadn’t.