Giving Shelter

With their numbers swelling since the financial crisis, Vienna’s homeless find refuge at the Gruft on Mariahilferstraße

News | Christian Cummins | December 2011 / January 2012

Photo: Reiner Riedler/Caritas

The descent into homelessness can be dizzyingly fast, explains social worker Susanne Peter, but the climb back out is painstakingly slow.

"The path is strewn with obstacles," she says, raising her voice against the background din as she cradles a coffee in the dining room of the Gruft  – a shelter for the homeless in a cellar under the Mariahilf church just off central Vienna’s large shopping street. Founded as a soup kitchen in 1984 by parish priest Albert Gabriel with students from the Amerling Gymnasium, it has been supported since the mid-1990s jointly by the City of Vienna and Caritas, the social services arm of the city’s Catholic Archdiocese.

There are whirring washing machines near the entrance, the noise competing with the clatter of pots and pans as a team of cooks prepares hot meals for the two dozen homeless men and women sitting nearby. Ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-60s, they are chatting among themselves, whiling away the evening until bunking down in a large, noisy dormitory where earplugs are coveted treasures. The canteen is whitewashed, well lit and clean looking, but a choking fog of nicotine greets you when you enter the cellar from the fresh air outside.

Using a charming euphemism, Susanne Peter, a robust- and determined looking woman in her 40s, calls the homeless her "clients". Over the years, she says, former lawyers, engineers and police officers have numbered among them. The message is clear: No one is safe from homelessness. Often the trigger is the onset of mental illness, or a divorce. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the ranks of the homeless in Vienna have swollen by about 1,000 per year, Der Standard reported in October. In 2010, the social services registered 8,200 homeless people, yet nobody knows their true number.

For 25 years, it’s been Peter’s job to offer these people a friendly supportive hand and help them with practical steps such as regaining access to the job market, medical care, and ultimately housing.

The problem is getting them to accept help. Twice a week she tours Vienna in a white van, trying to persuade the homeless to come to the Gruft.

"We’re approaching my zone now", says Peter, as we pull up at Praterstern, perhaps the most notorious gathering point for Vienna’s homeless population. We walk towards a huddle of people. One young man is slumped against a low wall by the underground station, head in hands and rocking slowly. Two older men are tottering dangerously, each with a can of beer. The ground smells sharply of urine.

"It’s all here," says Peter, "mental illness, alcohol, and violence."

Peter says she’s been assigned to work with those who sleep around Praterstern because she "isn’t afraid". She’s a well-known face, and scruffy figures detach themselves from the groups near the entrance of the underground station to greet her. She chats with them with the familiarity of a strict older sister. Offering them cigarettes, she badgers them about their health and reminds them that there are alternatives to the hard life on the street.

It’s a daily tug of war.

"I want to be alone," insists Alois, a short, red-faced man in his mid-50s originally from Vorarlberg, "you can’t get any sleep at the Gruft anyway." He sleeps at building sites. "It’s okay if you ask the site manager." He revels in telling me that he is fine.

The social worker dismisses this as bravado. "No one is voluntarily on the streets", she says.

The vast majority of the homeless we meet on the streets are male. Peter explains that this is partly because it is usually the men who lose their apartment after a divorce, but also because women are much better at seeking and accepting help. Official help, such as the Gruft, is good, but often, Peter says, homeless women are taken in by men who then take advantage of their dependence: "Many women are stuck in abusive relationships."

At the Donauinsel, we meet a man called Xandi who has been living rough for over a decade. He lives in a tent hidden in the thorny bushes along the Neue Donau.

Peter hasn’t seen him in three years. Xandi is bearded and burned dark by the sun, his brown scalp showing under unkempt and thinning long hair. He has gentle eyes and, smiling, he says he’s the black sheep of his family. Peter replies that black sheep are special, and he laughs, revealing a mouth almost emptied of teeth. Nevertheless, Xandi looks strangely handsome. But he’s not old. I’m shocked when he says he’s just 46.

Looking over the Danube he chats with us; his voice is soft and he is well spoken. He invites (or perhaps challenges) me to stay in his tent in February to see how warm it is. But Peter is worried – she estimates he has lost around 20 kilos since she last saw him and later tells me that is a classic indicator of tuberculosis – or worse. Homeless people are particularly vulnerable to tuberculosis, with infection rates up to 100 times more than in the general population.

Peter urges Xandi to come to the Gruft and to get a chest X-ray, but he becomes sullen when the conversation turns to practicalities. It’s a balancing act for Peter. Past experience has taught her that homeless people want to be searched out because it shows them someone cares. But if she "nags" too much, she risks the contact being broken off. In the end she hands Xandi a winter sleeping bag.

"I don’t want to make life comfortable for him out here," she says, "I want him to seek a proper solution." But she also doesn’t want him to freeze.

Thomas Ginsel, the Gruft’s psychologist, fears that Xandi is suffering from depression, despite his demonstrative cheerfulness. He says it is often the mentally fragile who choose the lonely spaces along the Danube rather than crowded train stations. But depression is only one of the mental illnesses afflicting the homeless. Eight out of ten suffer from some sort of addiction, with alcoholism the most prevalent.  The rate of diagnosed cases of schizophrenia is 10 to 15 per cent compared to between 0.6 and 1 per cent in the general population. Mental illness is thus a vicious circle – it is often the cause of homelessness, and then living rough exacerbates the condition.

Peter recently had a breakthrough. Three years ago she found a man living in one of the concrete toilets along the Danube.  She began to work on building up trust, but for months he wouldn’t even let her see him. For an hour at a time, she would stand outside the toilet gently talking to him through the closed door, slowly coaxing him to accept her help.  After three long years of effort he finally accepted.  Now he is living in an apartment in the city.

"They know I’ll never give up", she says, flashing a smile.

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