When the chips are down, how does a top-rated city give shelter to those who have lost everything?
Recessions remind us that home is a luxury, the literal and metaphorical walls that both sustain and defend us against invaders. As summer gives way to biting easterly winds, the City of Vienna’s winter package for the homeless kicks in to welcome Europe’s lesser-known tourists: the huddled mass of the poor and weary drawn to wealthier European cities with organized social services. This year’s package offers 600 additional night shelter spots, although the rough total of 900 beds is still inadequate to keep all out of the impending snow.
No city is wholly welcoming. Vienna has ordinances against begging and benches designed to deter rough sleepers. At the main train station, the multilingual SAM (Mobile Social Worker) team direct the homeless to the charity Caritas’s P7 day center, where those qualifying for assistance register in the city’s database. The public is generally averse to beggars, often considering them part of shadowy Eastern European gangs.
The Wise and Road-Weary
Only in movies such as The Fisher King are the homeless mythologized as wise, saintly and beloved. The socialites in the biting comedy My Man Godfrey collect the “forgotten men” the 1930s depression for fun in a scavenger hunt. The tramps in De Sica’s Miracle in Milan, freed from Italy’s heartless postwar recession, ascend “to the only place where wishing someone a good day is heartfelt“. My mother rediscovered the neorealistic masterpiece this year, reminding me of a family motto: “There but for the grace of God go I.” My school friends and I chatted over coffee and roll-ups with Oxford’s homeless: Wiser, road-weary human beings whose lives, as much in the hands of the gods as ours, had simply taken a different path.
This strange year, in which politicians championing the forgotten people pull up the drawbridge against the even less fortunate, I met Barbara on the Shades Tours, a weekly exploration of Vienna’s homeless life. In 2008, with severe cancer, Barbara had to close her art gallery, then lost her apartment. Barbara and the refugee ‘godchild’ she cares for as family are in different shelters, hers restricting stays to two months, his designated for refugees. The waiting list for a permanent flat is years long. “I would like to start a conversation,” Barbara told me. “Even someone you think is in a gang might suffer sanctions if they don’t collect enough. Decide for yourself on an individual basis what to do.” Barbara’s story is the reality: This year’s first EU report on homelessness lists job-related financial disaster as the top reason for homelessness.
The Ghost of Christmas Present
What can we do? Between gift shopping, belt-busting dinners, the 20th viewing of Love Actually, and traveling hundreds of miles to visit family, who has time for good will to all? Novelties make cute gifts, but the same money represents a week of square meals and warm beds. The Vinzi shelters, named after the patron saint of charity, charge a symbolic €2 to ensure the hot meal prepared by volunteers and a cot bed in a dorm room are not taken for granted.
Winter in an easterly European city is hard enough, made harsher in this current climate of fear and loathing. Some U.S. cities fine citizens for feeding the homeless, some European cities fine the homeless for sleeping rough. I asked Barbara, now also cooking at a shelter and researching Vienna’s history of homelessness, if she might go back to art. “At some point you have to accept your dreams will not come true,” she stated plainly. As autumn leaves dropped on our shoulders, I remembered the homeless in Miracle in Milan fighting to stand in a ray of sunshine. In a sea of bare necessities, a hot meal, a kind word, and a bed offer a welcome oasis of luxury.