Visiting the Winter Shelter, Slotermeerlaan, Amsterdam

Geplaatst op 4 januari 2024

'This is so much more than a place to sleep and eat alone'

Sixty beds are at the Winter Shelter (WO) on Slotermeerlaan, and some eighty more will be added when it freezes and the WinterKoudeRegeling (WKR) kicks in. In the various walk-in centres, De Regenboog Groep also has thirty sleeping places and seventy more for when it gets barren outside. Who lives there, why, and how is it going?

We are at Plein 40-45 in Amsterdam West, between the holidays. There is a somewhat hurried, expectant atmosphere in the market and stores. People are doing their final shopping, visitors are on their way, children are coming, one is expected at family soon.... The baskets of fruits and vegetables are still on the sidewalk in front of the stores. In the bakery stores, people are sitting down to coffee and baklava. 'Cozy' is the word. But those who know the square know that the atmosphere changes once the market is cleared out. And a little further into the evening, the signs of the Turkish restaurants, the coffee shops, the steakhouse, the convenience store and the Febo go out. And when thereby the rain-soaked streets are stripped of their glittering colors, here is an ordinary square between gallery flats in a suburb. Slept in, in the dark behemoths, in preparation for the working day. And this upcoming winter night, you don't want to be on the street, let alone sleeping there. And that's a thought to swallow again; imagine for a moment.... really imagine for a moment that you are standing in such a place, in the cold, taking shelter after midnight, with nowhere to go.

Hoodies, sweatpants and trainers

And with that, at this still cheerful hour, we enter the nearby De Regenboog Groep winter shelter. Past security and rooms with beds, into a gymnasium-sized room. There are wooden tables, each with four chairs, only one of which is always occupied by a visitor. The men, predominantly between twenty-five and sixty, wear hoodies, sweatpants and athletic shoes. A large, highly hung TV screen on the longitudinal side of the room shows country singer Ilse de Lange, also dressed as if she were going to a family dinner. Underneath is a counter set up where food will soon be served. Already there are coffee, lemonade, filled cookies, chips, popcorn and rolls of Mentos. Behind the counter is volunteer Silvia, talking to a tree of a man dressed all in black, somewhat agitated, who, judging by his dialect, seems to be from Eastern Europe. Silvia doesn't get to his chest yet.

It can happen to the best


"Fascinating work here you know," she says, once she's managed to detach herself from the work a moment later. Silvia has been working here for a few years. She is an anthropologist, works as a policy advisor for the municipality, has a daughter and a grandchild. People sometimes ask her why she does this on the side, too. It gets her, she says, "out of her bubble" and what she gets in return is often, "overwhelmingly beautiful. 'I know most of the volunteers here feel the same way,' she continues. 'It's also a very diverse group that comes here over the years; from migrant workers to refugees to people who are just having a hard time. Of course you also see addiction problems and mental health problems. With many visitors there is more to it than not having a home, of course. But then again, it's not like it's all very far from what you can imagine. I mean, it can happen to the best - I've noticed that.'

Imagine what it is like when you are standing on the street somewhere, not knowing where you will sleep and watching the crowd pass you by.

Winter shelter as a springboard

In this Winter Shelter only men come and they are screened by the GGD. That means; they can just join, have to have a certain connection with Amsterdam and get guidance. Silvia: 'The latter is actually also one of the wonderful aspects of this work. That they can eat and sleep here gives many of these men the opportunity to catch their breath, a period of rest. And that is exactly what creates space to lay the building blocks for a more solid existence. Think about applying for a BSN number, opening a bank account, keeping a diary and looking at your life, drinking less. Call it a stepping stone.... an opening."

In the meantime, the room has gotten busier. The remaining three chairs per table are now occupied as well. Silvia has to help at the counter again. Other volunteers have jumped in, and when everyone has their first plate of pasta with broccoli, the gymnasium begins to resemble a cozy factory canteen. There is laughter and conversation. The large Eastern European, meanwhile, makes a rather emphatic appearance of wanting to tell his story as well, not really accepting "Yeah, maybe later" as a real option. Until Silvia comes back, asks him to refrain from it anyway, and he, 'Okay, sorry, sorry,' walks back to the table where his unbroken food still stands. 'Of course, not everyone is always easy,' she says. 'But you get used to that. In general, people are very happy to be here, and for that reason alone they are as adjusted as possible. And we are usually here with six volunteers, including two men security.'

No number but human

Silvia talks about the encounters that have touched her. And no, of course they are not all Christmas stories with happy endings but there are many beautiful moments among them. There was the man who, when it was his turn to be served food, said, "Room six," to which she asked him what his name was and said he was not a number here but a human being. Months later, she ran into him at Dam Square and asked him how he was doing. 'Much better,' he said. And after some hesitation, "Remember when you said I wasn't a number? Not many more words were needed. It was clear to them both what that had meant to him. Silvia: 'Being seen, that's what this is also about. Just think what it's like when you're standing on the street somewhere, not knowing where you will sleep and watching the crowd pass you by. The visitors are also here for a longer period of time, so we can really build a bond with them.'



And then there was the boy who drank too much, let too many people into his home too often, was evicted and could no longer rely on his family. 'I'm a troublemaker,' he had said right away that first night he was at Slotermeerlaan. Silvia saw him sitting alone at a table shuffling some metal chips and asked what he was doing. The boy then asked her how her family and friends were doing. She answered honestly, "Why not? It's not all cake and butter with anyone.' And he explained what the chips meant; each chip stood for a family member or friend. The closer he moved them to the chit that represented himself, the better the bond. He kept sliding the chits. Because it was difficult to determine the value of each relationship, but also because, in the end, the arrangement had to represent not the state of affairs but his hopes for the future. Silvia, she later discovered, got a chit close to his, and a homemade puppet on the day he left.


Naturally, some stories evoke more compassion than others but the same is true for everyone I speak to here. The difference between Winter Shelter as a solution and no solution, is the difference between a dignified existence and the edge of the abyss. The reality of Kamal (45), endorsed by videos, photos and Whatsapp messages on his mobile, is.... the best word is: tough. But he talks about it as if it were an unexpected event; something that happened to him for a moment now but which will not play a lasting role after all. 'Daddy are you coming? Daddy are you coming today then?" his messages repeatedly read in capital letters. He shows videos of his boys, all three under the age of ten. They hang around his neck. But they live with his ex in Almere and that relationship is not good. He gets up at five every day for his job in catering at Schiphol Airport. And his paycheck shows a varying weekly salary under three hundred euros. A return trip to Almere including bus tickets costs him close to twenty euros. And while he's there, given the weather, he has to do something inside; to the swimming pool or the cinema.... times four tickets. Chance of affordable housing - zero. He shows a picture of a court document; the judge will decide in February how to proceed with the visitation arrangement. 'Yes ideal it is not,' he says, 'but otherwise I had nothing. And this is a safe place. I sleep well here. Try to save for my boys. This is not going to stay like this forever. I'm working hard. I have hope.'

Text: Gijs de Swarte │ Photography: Merlin Michon


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