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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?