Our vendors: Heiko Schmitz (Surprise, Basel, Switzerland)

By Heiko Schmitz, Surprise

Please excuse me – my speech is difficult to understand right now. I was in a fight recently, and broke my dental plate. I am Heiko Schmitz. I was born in Cologne 50 years ago. I originally trained to become a sporting goods salesman, but that wasn’t the career for me.

When I was still young, I founded a company, and with the help of eight employees built houses using timber technology. All went well – until two clients ended up not paying me. Because of those debts I had to give up the company.

I tried to earn money in Denmark, Sweden, and Holland as a construction manager, but without success. By 2004 I was bankrupt. Two years later I moved to Switzerland. There I managed 30 to 40 workers at large construction sites. I was slaving away 12 to 14 hours per day, sometimes also on Sundays. For five years I didn’t have any holidays. The result: a burnout. I did not seek treatment and shortly afterwards I had an accident at work. I basically tore all the ligaments in my left shoulder. But the insurance did not want to cover it, and so I was in debt again.

Photo by: Lucian Hunziker

Just as I began to get better, I received a message from my wife. She wanted a divorce – we had been married for 22 years. And to make things worse, only little later, my employer decided that I was “accident prone”, and sacked me.

In 2013 I did not have anything anymore: no job, no apartment, no relationship. I ended up on the street. And when I say ‘the street’, that is literally what I mean. I slept under a bridge for 25 months.

The first support I got during that period was from the people from the street kitchen. They said: “Heiko, you are a calm one – you can help us with our work here.” I was anything but calm, only they hadn’t got to know me then. But with the job at the street kitchen I had taken the first step off the street: I let them help me. That was not easy for me.

In 2014, when I was more or less back on track, my daughter died in a car accident. I lost all self-control. I drank 25 to 30 cans of beer every day. Now I have reduced my alcohol consumption to five cans per day – without medical help, which makes me proud.

At the street kitchen later they also found out that I have a big mouth and they got me in touch with the organisation Surprise. In 2015 they were looking for a city guide (I would have preferred to sing in the street choir but they said my singing was too loud and too wrong). “Heiko, you can do this,” the people there insisted.

The learning process was very tough. For a long time I doubted I would be able to do it and kept having break-downs. But at Surprise they believed in me. Even when I was feeling lethargic or when I was trying to sabotage myself, they sent me a text:  “Come Heiko, we’ll talk about everything.”

“Remember one thing: it can happen to anyone. I hope you will never become homeless!”

I have been a city guide since 2015. During my tours I explain how homeless people are being marginalized. Parks are being “re-designed”, so that sleeping there becomes almost impossible: benches without backrests, sprinkler systems that start at two in the morning, or public bathrooms that are closed at night and charge 1.50 CHF during the day. And there’s the security checks: at the station the same police patrol bothered me three times. “Mister Schmitz, just show us your I.D.,” they said the third time. If you don’t have a valid train ticket, the police send you away. If they catch you several times you get a fine for trespassing: 2700 CHF.

Besides the street kitchen I also visited the day centre for the homeless, and the Schwarze Peter organisation. At the former you can have a shower, wash your clothes or get new ones. The Schwarze Peter offers an address if you need one for official registration. There are more than 430 people in Basel who are registered at their address, which I find shocking.

But the most important thing with these institutions is the social interaction. Because if you live on the street, you become very isolated. I would never tell anyone where I was sleeping. Amongst the homeless everything is being shared, the last beer, the last cigarette – only your place for the night remains a secret. Now I have a new relationship and I can sleep at my girlfriend’s.

Now, to finish my story, remember one thing: it can happen to anyone. You could lose your job and your apartment much more quickly than you think. I hope you will never become homeless!

Heiko Schmitz was speaking to Beat Camenzind. Translated from German in English by Martina Hillbrand.