Not alone

Rainer Brenner • 31.01.2019

The Pfuusbus offers homeless people in Zurich a home for a limited period during the cold months of the year. We accompanied the manager Monika Christen at work for a whole day.

Cloudy with plus one to minus four degrees – this is the forecast for this Tuesday evening. When we reach the terminus of bus route 32 shortly before six o’clock, people who are smoking are already walking on the other side of the street over the large, empty gravel square or are huddling together in small groups. Many of them are astonishingly young and in no way seem to match our expectations of the homeless.

Sieber Stiftung has been involved with various projects for people in need – for example with the Pfuusbus – since the end of the 1980s. The articulated lorry has been standing at Albisgüetli in Zurich for 16 years between mid-November and mid-April and offers the homeless somewhere to sleep and a hot meal.

A place without any pressure

«Du bisch nöd elai»

(You’re not alone) is emblazoned in large letters on the white wall of the trailer, next to a large portrait of the founder, Pastor Sieber. Even after his death last year, this sentence remains more than just a slogan: «We act in line with this slogan day in day out», explains the manager Monika Christen, who welcomes us at the entrance. «Up here visitors meet like-minded people. However, the most important thing is that there is simply peace and quiet here and no pressure from anyone. Guests can simply recover here quietly from their day – just like everyone wants to do at home.»

The 17 metre long articulated lorry houses 15 sleeping places inside. The heated tent in front of it offers additional space for up to 25 people. «But there have been far more of us», says Monika and sits down with us in the kitchen, which is still empty. After training as a social worker, the qualified banker worked in the Ur-Dörfli addiction services and then moved to the Pfuusbus a year later. Three permanent staff, a community service officer and over 80 volunteers ensure that this project continues. For example Susi and Claudia, who arrive shortly after us, and cheerfully stand in the narrow kitchen behind the oven. «Guests actually all eat very healthily. Vegetables are much more popular than sweet things», says the helper Claudia and plucks the lettuce leaves. Complicated menus are supplied pre-cooked, more simple meals such as the tortellini this evening are freshly prepared in the small kitchen.

«They simply want to keep what they still have now.»

At about half past six the first guests already start arriving: A quiet couple, who help to arrange the foam mattresses and are then allowed into the warm a bit earlier as a reward. After that task is done, they both sit down quietly next to each other on one of the two beer benches and leaf through old issues of Geo magazine.

«Some visitors have been coming here regularly for over a decade, others only come now and then», explains Monika. Not only human guests are welcome here, but also their accompanying pets. For example Leila the dog: «Although she’s already 16 years old, she follows her owner everywhere. She sleeps next to him on the mattress and even accompanies him outside to the WC».

Many of the visitors have fled the system and are no longer very hopeful of having a permanent home. «They simply want to keep what they still have now. But there are also exceptions now and again – people, who manage to get off the streets and get their act together. Naturally, these stories motivate us. But the gratitude and appreciation, which guests show every day, is just as indescribable», thinks Monika. When the first small group sits down at the table in the kitchen with a soft greeting, we leave the Pfuusbus to its guests and the night watch.

Short nights, long days

The next morning at 10 am the bus is already empty again and has been cleared up so it’s spick and span. The foam mattresses have been piled up tidily in the corner, the tent smells of fresh air and cleaning products. In the kitchen Monika is talking to the two night watchers over a cup of coffee and is reading through the report from the previous night. The night watch consists of two members of staff or helpers, who set up camp on the kitchen bench and under the oven.

The quiet guests sleep in the cabins next door. But it’s never really quiet down in the tent because many of the visitors get up during the night, go outside and consume. Although there is a strict ban on alcohol, drugs and smoking in the bus – what happens outside is up to every guest.

The previous night had passed quietly, reads Monika in the report. Apart from a brief argument, nothing much happened. However, only very few carers are able to sleep here – the night watchers therefore leave the bus in the morning feeling correspondingly tired and grateful. «Towards the end of the season this work starts to get a bit much», admits Monika. A whole pile of administrative work is waiting for her in her office in Seebach today. After that it’s back to the Pfuusbus until at least half past seven. «Working here needs a lot of strength and energy, which people on the outside can probably hardly imagine.» Nevertheless the end of the season on 15 April always means tears from all those involved: «We experience so much here every day! And we become very attached to some of the guests. It’s often still very cold in April so I really worry about them.»

Her own home is half an hour’s drive away in a quiet village. «My little oasis», explains Monika with a broad grin. «One needs somewhere to retreat to and a healthy environment to do this job otherwise one won’t be able to tolerate it. When the garage door closes behind me, I just want to relax. I can then fully enjoy my home. Because I know how lucky I am.»

Pfuusbus in figures

5,517 overnight stays were recorded by the Pfuusbus last year.

More than 87,000 cups of coffee were handed out in the Pfuusbus between November 2017 and January 2019.

The bus and tent offer a total of 40 places to sleep. The maximum occupancy was 52.

3 permanent staff, 1 community service officer and over 80 volunteers work for the Pfuusbus.

Anyone who donates 60 francs will fund one overnight stay with meals and companionship.

Photography: Lucas Ziegler