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Christmas on the street

 Die Jerusalëmmer - Germany 21 November 2019

I’m feeling just a little uneasy. It’s a dark wintry night at 5pm, and the place where I’m meeting six homeless people from Hamburg is anything but inviting. At the pier I meet Kai, Helmut, Biggi, Hartmut, Elena and Heinz. They’re all between forty and fifty years old, have lived on the streets for years… and really, none of them particularly want to talk to me about Christmas. (819 Words) - By Bianca Bolduan

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Die Jerusalemmer_Christmas on the streets

The view over the city of Hamburg, Germany in winter. Photo: Frank Keil

I finally see the place where these six people have built themselves a 'home' of sorts - an alcove under one of the piers, privacy for each resident created through cardboard and old blankets.

"We look after each other" says Kai and gives me a grim look. He's the oldest and "somehow always lived on the street", as he says. Sharing the mulled wine and Stollen I brought, I hope to learn something about "Christmas in the street".

"It's painful," says Biggi, who used to be an insurance broker. The others look down and away. Biggi softly tells how she used to bake cookies with the kids, her own and others from the neighbourhood. They'd bake cookies and gingerbread houses, laugh and look forward to Christmas while listening to Rolf Zuckowski songs. "Those were the good times," she says.

I hardly dare ask what happened. Insurance broker, her own children... how come she'll have to face Christmas in the street?

Elena, the second woman in the group, weighs in. Her voice is shrill as she accuses Biggi of at least having a daughter who visits at Christmas. Visits? Here? Helmut and Heinz laugh. They think my speechlessness hilarious as I wonder how a daughter can allow her mother to live in the street.

"She brings us food and wine," says Heinz, still chuckling. "The last four years, she's been bringing us all a Christmas meal." But she won't take her mother home. "And how do you celebrate Christmas?" I ask.

There are a few places around the piers, places to get some food and to get warm. Christmas songs play there, and pine smells are in the air. Clementines and gingerbread are offered. They can't go to church, they aren't welcome there because they smell. Heinz says this with an infinite, resigned sadness. "The birth of baby Jesus," he quietly adds, "but only those who already have everything can go."

"What do you wish for?" I want to know. I'm thinking that perhaps there's something I can do, some social action needed. Six pairs of eyes look at me, baffled.

"What are we supposed to wish for? That Christmas is over with quickly, what else?" Kai still looks at me grimly.

Just then, a thin figure turns the corner and I learn that this is Jens, 56 years old.

"It's his first year out here." Heinz pats Jens on the shoulder. "But he'll be alright, we'll look after him." Jens looks at me and I'm struck by those tired eyes; the others tell him who I am and he smiles sadly.

"I'm scared of Christmas," he whispers, clutching the glass with the hot mulled wine. "Just to think... a year ago I thought everything was fine." He looks out on the Elbe and I see his eyes swimming in tears. "A year ago I was buying a Christmas tree... and presents. Today I'm just glad I have a place to sleep."

I have lots of other questions on my list which I wanted to "go through" here. I let it be. There's so much sadness, fear and bitterness here, the daily battle for survival ever-present, how can I even mention a "merry" Christmas here? Perhaps the argument is true that nobody in this country has to be homeless. There's a social safety net, we have adequate facilities and charitable organisations. No one has to live in the street.

But that's easily said. I'm fed, I'm wearing warm clothes and my new winter boots would probably carry me through the next ice age. I can make phone calls, organise things, sort things out. But could I still do that after living on the streets in these temperatures? If I had no one to go to, no place to get warm? When my money is spent, my job gone and my family had left?

A little later, sitting in my warm car and telling my satellite navigation device to go "home", my hands shake from more than just the cold.

Perhaps these seven people carry responsibility for their own stations in life; I can't and won't judge that. But, for crying out loud, it's Christmas! Isn't there anything we can do?

This year as I unpack my presents I'll probably think of the woman whose daughter brings her a meal, in the street. What will she say? Merry Christmas, Mom?

Translated from German into English by Susanne Koch

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