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In Germany, even tramps have CD-players

Homelessness does not preclude cleanliness and order in Hamburg. Imre Karacs meets the world's most houseproud street-dwellers
GUNTER is rather proud of his little abode in central Hamburg. "That's a listed monument," he says, pointing at the roof over his head: the arch of a bridge. The icy Baltic wind blows through the yard-high gaps between the plywood wall of the shack and the monumental masonry. A pyre of wood smouldering in a converted oil drum in the "kitchen" belches out black smoke but radiates little heat. It is just above freezing outside, and not much warmer within the enclosure, elevated to bedroom status by the seven mattresses lying on the concrete floor.

Still, the archway's landlord thinks he is lucky. Hundreds of other homeless people doss down in far worse places, dropping in exhaustion on sheltered corners of the nearby Reeperbahn, Hamburg's ill-famed avenue of sleaze. Not Gunter, who after nine years on the street has rediscovered homeliness, companionship - and wealth. His "house", shared with up to 10 people on any given night, has all mod cons, including satellite television, a stereo with CD player, a bathroom of sorts and, most important of all, a vacuum cleaner. The house rules are that everybody must have a bath three times a week.

"Order, cleanliness, honesty," Gunter recites the three cardinal German virtues. It is a mantra he has been humming since the most tragic day of his life a year ago, when his best friend Luden keeled over in a drunken stupor and never got up again. A small wooden cross now marks the spot where Luden fell, surrounded by boxes that will blossom in the summer.

The memorial was the first step towards redemption. "If we don't clean up our lives, we'll all die," Gunter declared, and the gang of homeless set about building a home. Pieces of discarded furniture and plywood were assembled for the wall, rugs salvaged from rubbish dumps were laid down on the concrete. Wielding brooms and shlepping buckets of water from a youth hostel 100 yards up the hill, the chaotic hovel's residents in no time created a clean and orderly hovel.

Then the miracle happened. Witnessing this unique urban regeneration project, people from the neighbourhood started to bring gifts: some food, a few clothes, and pieces of furniture for which they no longer had any use. That is when the worn sofas arrived, all gratefully received, dusted down and crammed into the shrinking living space. Then came the gadgets and the two generators to power them.

And one day a Mercedes pulled up. "I have DM2,000 (pounds 880) to spend on you. What do you need?" asked the driver. "Well," they replied hesitantly, "we could do with a colour telly instead of that old black-and-white one." "What else?" the man barked. It took some time to fill the shopping list. The Mercedes eventually drove away, only to return within the hour with a full boot. The 24-inch colour television set now stands on a cupboard in the centre of the living room, although the satellite dish has not been fitted because the bridge cuts out the signal. The stereo and the heavy metal CDs that came with it get a lot of use, but the video recorder remains in its box.

Generosity flows unabated, but Gunter and his friends are becoming overwhelmed. By Christmas they were able to fill more than 20 boxes with clothes for Bosnian refugees. "We have more than we need," says Renate, the only woman in the house, who takes turns with Gunter to cook the evening meal. "Now it's our turn to help others." She gives me a guided tour, showing off the boxes all packed to be sent to the needy. A van from a local charity calls several times a week, not to bring things, but to take them away for distribution.

The "house" is clean and tidy, though not as tidy as usual, Renate says apologetically. "I am sorry, I don't feel well," she complains, shivering. "I had too much to drink last night." She slumps on an armchair in front of the barrel of fire, but the shakes only get worse. Gunter and the others indulge her, first offering tea and then tenderly administering the antidote to her illness. Gunter holds up her head and gently presses the bottle of schnapps to her lips. As she falls asleep, one of the men goes out to get a doctor. Renate shares with her flat-mates a multitude of alcohol- related diseases, and Gunter, who is 36 but looks 20 years older, is determined that no one in his house should follow Luden's fate. "We are a family," he says. "We must look after one another."

The locals who call nowadays at the shack under the bridge are no longer drawn there by the display of orderliness so unaccustomed in this kind of environment. Gunter and his "family", the bums from former east Germany who could not take the pace of the new "elbow-society", have become heroes, role models in a country that desperately yearns for love. Their fame is spreading beyond the city. Gunter is becoming a star, holding television talk shows in thrall with his slurred speech, and there are plans to fly him to Rio de Janeiro to addressshanty-town dwellers there. His message of compassion and self-help seems to have a universal appeal.

"These people are so warm, so generous," says Ilsa Starker, an unemployed woman who has no money to donate, only her time - about an hour a day. "The state closes its eyes, so we have to help them. After all, these are human beings. In fact, they are the most decent people I know."