Trying to help Zurich’s homeless caught in the cold

So far this Winter the appearance of snow was short-lived in lower elevations, but that hasn’t stopped the mercury from dipping into the minus. In Zürich, a dip past the freezing point means teams of social workers scour the city looking for homeless braving the cold by circumstance, or sometimes by choice. WRS’s Tony Ganzer rode along with one team of SIP Züri and he brings this report.

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Christa Gomez and Hamed Selim are patrolling Zurich on this night, set to dip to –3 degrees. The team is looking for the homeless.

SELIM: “This guy is also one of these guys who doesn’t want any help from no one.”

GOMEZ: “So we actually just check that he is fine, that his health is okay.”

Gomez and Selim park their large blue van beneath an overpass, and approach a makeshift hut, with room for one. They yell toward the hut asking if its resident is okay, if he needs anything. He said he is okay. So Selim wishes him a good sleep and walks away.

SELIM: “Yeah, we know him since six years now, almost six years. And we tried everything with him, and we don’t give up. But we have an arrangement with him, you know he told us: please come earlier, and not every day. This guy carried with him more than 70 kilos a day and he walk in the street the whole day.”

GOMEZ: “He doesn’t want anything, he doesn’t need anything, he’s well-equipped. So, okay for us. Just check that he’s answering, and yeah.”

This response was typical on this night with the Safety Intervention Prevention, or SIP, team. SIP offers help, but can’t and won’t force it on the homeless, some of whom live on the streets by choice.

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Selim and Gomez have 15 spots to check on this night, on a shift running until about 3 in the morning. At this public toilet, they knock on the door to no answer, before opening it themselves.

Inside is a an older gentleman, well-known to SIP. They warn him they are entering, then ask why he didn’t answer them. When was he last at home? He says he will go tomorrow, but tonight he wants to stay. He says he is fine.

SELIM: “He is really connected, you know. Like he has his room in the retirement home. He is older than 75 years old, but he doesn’t go there, doesn’t go there at all—well, to get his money, yeah.”

GOMEZ: “And he now promised to go tomorrow, and have a shower. So we leave him to sleep here. Because it is warm in here, it is no problem. He isn’t homeless, actually. He has his room, but he doesn’t want to go. He prefers the toilet.”

SIP Züri is a liaison between social services and people on the street. They might address a noise complaint, or advise young drinkers to keep it safe. But they also speak with drug addicts and try to guide them to city services. They are meant to resolve problems without involving the police. On this cold night, though, the focus is on the homeless.

TONY GANZER: “Do you get frustrated that you can’t help these people more—they don’t want your help?”

GOMEZ: “Well, it’s their choice. I mean, they want it like this, so we respect their will. What is best for us doesn’t need to be the best for others as well.”

SELIM: “It is a way of life, but I am really patient, because I know it is only a matter of time. And I don’t try to understand why they…it is not my business. My business is: I know how to connect them, how to link them in another place. And I know it good, I do it good.”

And knowing where these folks are in the city is better than not knowing, Selim says. Because this way, SIP Züri can help when those in need are ready for it.

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