“Who knows anything about how women on the streets suffer? They’re mostly invisible, just like I was”

Interview by Christina Bacher, Draussenseiter

I was born in Mülheim, Cologne, in 1963. Nobody can help the family they are born into. Anyhow, I had a very difficult childhood that I don’t like to talk about. My only support was my grandmother, who died far too young. From early on, I was on my own.

Visit to the Wildpark Dünnwald

Perhaps that’s why I married at the age of 25 and had a child with a man who was violent. We didn’t have much money and I had to work a lot. I often had several jobs at once. I was probably overwhelmed by all of this. My husband made me more and more stressed. I finally separated from him, which was good. I just wanted to get away from Cologne, so I left with my new man and went to the countryside. I realised too late that my new man had tricked me and that he had a criminal history. Suddenly I had to have more and more to do with the police and the courts and his probation officers. Like many others, I had never dealt with such people before. That man was no good for me. But I was out of my usual environment and could not expect help from anywhere. I was trapped again.

The whole thing scared me

At some point or another, my body gave out on me and I became very ill. Amongst other things, I got severe pneumonia, so it was impossible for me to go on working. I was bedridden for a year and lost my job, so the downward spiral continued. My child wanted to move out at that time. When the Youth Office agreed, it broke my heart. I was suddenly alone – no friends, no family, no income – and living out in the country, where there were hardly any advice centres at that time. Then I was evicted for not paying my rent. From then on, I became someone else. At that time, I suppose I was not only physically, but also mentally ill. Today, I would say that this all went on far too long: that I didn’t care about anything anymore. Not even about myself. If I’d looked closely, I wouldn’t have recognised myself.

Without any understanding of what had happened, I suddenly found myself on the streets

I had nothing left and was ashamed of that. The time had come to call upon everything I had learned earlier in my life. At that time, I was often on my own. I slept in doorways and kept myself hidden. I didn’t want anyone to look at me and see what was wrong. I didn’t know where to go or who I could trust and, because I no longer had my papers, I decided to return to Cologne and to my grandmother, who had always been my support, who was always so warm-hearted, who is very much like me in looks and who I admired more than anyone.

At the beginning of the 80s

I clung to that memory, because it was the only thing I had left. I thought that if I had my grandmother by my side, everything would be OK. Of course, that was nonsense. But I actually did find a bit of peace at her graveside. And there was a toilet and running water from a fountain in the cemetery as well, so I always had something to drink – all that I needed really. As a child I had often been there, so I was not afraid of cemeteries. For several months I slept on benches or on a ledge in front of an old chapel.

The most important thing was to protect myself from the rain…and from my fellow human beings

The worst thing for me was when I was caught stealing. It was the first time that I had done it and it led to me being banned from that particular shop. After that, I became even more withdrawn. And because I would not beg, I often saw no-one for days on end. Even the visitors to the cemetery who had known my grandmother sometimes looked suspiciously at me. Now and again someone would give me 5 Marks, and I’d buy a coke or cigarillos. But I doubt that I looked very trustworthy at the time. People preferred to avoid me. I even stayed in the cemetery in winter and I lost lots of weight. Of course, I didn’t know that I had severe psychosis or that my body’s warning systems weren’t working properly any more. I didn’t even own a sleeping bag.

I didn’t feel cold or hungry

I was in amongst snow and ice in the cemetery and almost froze to death. But then a man spoke to me. He gave me hot coffee and took me to a place where I could shower and get shelter. It was my first time in a homeless shelter. I didn’t trust people and wouldn’t tell anyone my name. So, I went back to the cemetery and, in the end, I was admitted to a clinic because I was totally emaciated. I can hardly remember anything about that. Someone in the shelter must have informed the doctor when I went to take a shower there. That’s what saved me.

Grandma’s grave

It was only much later, after years in sheltered housing and lots of therapy, that I was able to get back in touch with my child and face up to the challenges of life again. It took lots of little but important steps for me to be the person I am today. First and foremost, I have my job as a street paper vendor to thank for having a proper routine and a job again. I started to write columns and poems. Somehow that sorted out the mess inside my head. And I got great feedback from my regular customers and readers. Then I started training as a recovery companion. It was clear to me that I wanted to help other women who were in similar positions to the one I used to be in. It’s really important to tell my story to encourage others. So, no more hiding for me!

Who knows anything about how women on the streets suffer? They’re mostly invisible, just like I was back then

Today, it seems to me that things had to be as they were – it gives my tough times some meaning because they were the only way I could find my purpose. The dog I call my soul mate, Clayd, was a dog that no-one wanted and almost died, and he gave me a stroke of luck. He takes care of me and supports me: he’s my best friend. And if I had to leave my little, shabby flat because of him, I would do it. People don’t like barking dogs. I won’t take that much longer.

Linda with her dog Clayd (Photo: Christina Bacher)

Apart from that, I’m doing well. So much so that three years ago I set up my own self-help group called “Homeless in Cologne.” Time and again since then I have been using my story to encourage other women – I’m one of them, that’s why they trust me. I know how fast you can end up on the outside again. That’s why there is no cause for anyone to act superior. Nevertheless, I am not put off by all my detractors who give me no credit or all the people who don’t understand that I speak my mind and want to get involved. I speak on podiums and at political events about how things are for women out there; that they have no voice and are often used by others to get a warm bed for the night. I would prefer that no-one passes casually by a woman who sits for a long time, and always at the same time, on a park bench, or past women who are carrying lots of bags and who sneak a look in the rubbish bin. I would like people to not be so quick to judge women like these. I wish that there could be more single rooms in the shelters. After an emotional crisis, the thing you most need is peace and quiet. I speak about this in radio interviews and on TV shows and will not rest until this subject gets more of an airing.

Today my life is political, committed and self-determined. Who can say that about themselves?

Of course, I still have a lot of rebuilding to do. Sadly, this includes contact with my child. You cannot undo what has been done, and I was not there for her. I was very ill and lived on the streets, and my child is ashamed of that.

My lungs were also damaged by years on the streets, so I get short of breath and am often ill. My dog, who saw hard times before he came to me, also needs expensive medication. I try to deal with everything as well as I can. Today, I feel stronger than ever. The eleven years that I was homeless have made me a different person. On the other hand, I’m just a normal woman, who likes to look pretty, who likes to meet up with friends and who can be a mother, girlfriend and helper. I am also a person, and for this I am very thankful, who has not lost faith in God. When nothing else helps, I look up to the stars and pray. I always feel very rich at times like these.

Translated from German by Edward Alaszewski