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."

News
people

Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
The last great picture - Winner 'Black and White' and overall 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year'
art
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voices

News
Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward (right) with former 'Washington Post' executive editor Ben Bradlee
people

The Washington Post editor helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down President Nixon

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - SThree Group - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: SThree Group has been...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - SThree Group - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: SThree Group has been...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Computer Futures

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - SThree - £18k Starting Salary

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: SThree Group has been...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London