Homelessnes amidst Mountains of Gold

by Melisa Kamenjakovic

“I had enough… of my family, of everything. I wanted to go my own way, do my own thing,” says Adem Nukic, a former homeless person who came to Switzerland as a refugee from Bosnia.

With about a 150 million homeless people worldwide, homelessness remains a major social problem. And although some countries are more affected than others, even in Switzerland, the country ranking number one in the human development index, homelessness is still a problem.

The reasons why homeless people end up in that situation is because of structural, systematic and, as it was the case for Adem, individual reasons. In Switzerland, those include debt, overspending, drugs, and factors associated with migration.

Before landing on the street, Adem had accommodation and was successful in his job. “Then I began mixing with the wrong people and started smoking weed. I lost my job and then immediately had to move because the building I was living in was getting renovated.”

Like many people, what ultimately led Adem to homelessness was a chain of unfortunate events. He had been provided with shared accommodation by the AOZ, an asylum organization, where he lived with a couple of strangers. There, he also found a girlfriend. “That’s where I started with Cocaine. Because she earned a lot, we would spend all the money on drugs. We had everything.”, says Adem.

What made him lose his accommodation, was the result of an accident. When they broke up, Adem fell asleep while drinking and smoking a cigarette. The next day the cigarette set the house on fire. He was kicked out and could no longer ask the AOZ for assistance: He was homeless.

According to a study from 2021, the amount of homeless people in Switzerland was around 2.55 people per 10’000 residents. In total, there were approximately 2200 homeless people. As a comparison, in Spain there are around 8.6 per 10’000 homeless people, in the USA it is 17 per 10’000 residents. These big differences are largely due to a higher ratio between rent and income than in Switzerland or lack of affordable housing, as well as more unemployment as the result of past economic and financial crises, such as the Great Recession.

Luckily, there are ways of helping the homeless in Switzerland. A spokesperson of the aid organization, SW Sieber, says: “We have a good welfare agency provided by the state. But you need to bring a lot of papers: Your ID, health insurance card and other things. Many homeless people just don’t have the papers available.”

That was the case with Adem too. He says: “When I lost my accommodation, I just grabbed my backpack, put some things in it, and left. I had no papers, nothing except for my backpack. The state offers an emergency sleeping place in winter, but when I went there, it was absolutely horrible. I had to sleep with one eye open. Never again. I preferred sleeping outside on cardboard even though often in winter I’d nearly freeze to death.”

“To apply for the welfare agency, you also need to specify a place of residence.”, the spokesperson of SW Sieber says. “Of course, for a homeless person, that is impossible. That’s how private organizations like ours help the homeless. We offer a temporary residence and help you retrieve all other papers.” However, according to them, a lot of people don’t seek help from an organization because they feel ashamed of seeking help. “Putting trust in a stranger is very difficult.”

Adem had different reasons. “I didn’t even know such organizations existed. Truth be told, I didn’t even try to find help at the time. In Switzerland you’re not allowed to sleep anywhere: If you sleep at places of public transportation, like a bus station, the police take you. Because of that, I was in jail about a thousand times, but I didn’t really care: I had given up on myself.  I even had a suicide attempt.”

He says that only through a friend did he find out about the private organizations. “The Reverend Sieber (Creator of SW Sieber) was one of the people most invested in the cause. One of the best people. You could get food and a place to sleep, they even had therapists. They helped me to be able to get money from the welfare organization, but I only put my mail there. I didn’t want to completely abandon being homeless, I still had friends from when I was homeless who were basically my second family. I couldn’t just abandon them.”

In his time as a homeless person, SW Sieber wasn’t the only organization that helped him with finding shelter and food. He had to switch many times: Some were better suited for his personal needs, others less. “Some forbid you to invite people over or to drink or smoke. Some force you to have a daily structure. That’s what I hated the most: After all, I’m not a child anymore. I wanted to sleep on the streets again, because I hated how others had to control me.”

But he didn’t go back to the streets again. “What saved me from that decision was more luck than reason. My friend offered me temporary housing, and only because he was my friend, my second family, did I accept. I realized that I just wanted to finally be able to sleep in a warm bed, and do nothing for once. With time, the wish to remain homeless disappeared, until I finally felt like the place I was living in, was my home.”

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