Homeless in Switzerland

Even in the richest country in the world, there are homeless people.

We live in a rented flat on the edge of the richest neighborhood (Oberstrass) in the richest city (Zürich) in the richest country in the world (Switzerland).  Everything is neat and orderly.  The Swiss run the country like the clockwork for which they are duly famous. And the social safety net is strong, as I’ve heard from Swiss colleagues who have explained the systems for education, healthcare, disability, retirement, and unemployment.  Even in the tiny rural villages through which I’ve hiked, the homes are tidy and the farms are clean and organized.

Nonetheless, there are homeless people in Switzerland.

Indeed, when the international aid organization Doctors Without Borders recently set up field hospitals near Geneva, one of their explicit goals was to support the homeless. “Between 3,000 to 5,000 homeless people and at-risk migrants are believed to live in the canton of Geneva”, according to an article in TheLocal. As the organization noted, “people living in overcrowded conditions, on the streets, in makeshift camps or in substandard housing are at particular risk (from the corona virus)”.

Those numbers surprised me, because until recently I held the illusion that there were no homeless people in Switzerland.  Indeed, at least two Swiss colleagues in my office told me, independently, how shocked they were when they went to a meeting in California and found the streets littered with homeless people. Such sights were totally unfamiliar to them, and also surprising. They expected to see such things in third-world countries, they said, but not in the purportedly great United States. (Sadly, as we from the U.S. know all too well, America does an embarrassingly poor job assisting its homeless.)

In recent months, however, I’ve noticed two homeless people in the heart of Zürich.  I recently walked down Bahnhofstrasse, reputedly the most expensive retail real estate in the world (perhaps second only to New York’s Fifth Avenue), normally bustling with shoppers but deserted on this corona-tinged Saturday morning.  There, in the entryway for Läderach chocolate (closed, like all the other shops on Bahnhofstrasse) was a person sleeping, bundled against the cold – likely the same homeless man I’d seen on this block well before the corona situation. The contrast was stark, between this poor fellow and this high-end chocolatier targeting the 1% of chocolate shoppers.  It made me wonder about those vaunted Swiss systems for assisting such people, and how this fellow slipped through the cracks.


For the past two weeks I’ve encountered an older man at the edge of the woods, where the posh Oberstrass neighborhood meets the hilltop forest. Each time I see him, early in the morning, he is carrying a bedroll and some bags of provisions, and appears to be on the move.  Today, it appears he is camping at a popular picnic spot; as I passed this morning, his overnight fire was still smoldering next to his cookpot and other provisions.

Again, I do not know why this man is sleeping outdoors.  Did he lose his job and his home, perhaps due to the corona situation?  Or perhaps he is infected, and chooses to sleep outdoors to protect others in his home?  Or perhaps his partner is a medical professional and he has left home to protect himself from potential infection? Or perhaps he is a medical professional, working days at the hospital and sleeping nights in the park, to protect his family? Or perhaps he is a long-time homeless person, who just happened to move into my neck of the woods this month.  I doubt I will ever know.

Anyway, I am generally impressed by the Swiss and by Switzerland, yet remain curious how they address the challenge of tending to the most needy, especially in times of crisis.

ds Zigermannli

Röthlisberger statue on Zurichberg.

The high point of my morning walk is a viewpoint on Zürichberg that overlooks the city, the lake, and the hills and Alpine mountains beyond.  But I often walk further, following the path south along the slope.  Within a few hundred meters I pass a pleasant little park that currently includes an installation of bronze statues by Zürich artist Freddy Air Röthlisberger.  I find these pieces captivating, in part because each comes with a brief explanation that provides a tidbit of Swiss history.   I’ll post them in a series.  The first tidbit is particularly tasty :-).


ETH Sphinx

A mysterious pair of lamps outside the ETH main building.

Gold-painted lampposts outside ETH main building.On sunny days it can be nice to walk past the west side the ETH main building – where there is an expansive stone courtyard with spectacular views across the city and to the distant Alps.  It’s long struck me as odd that the west entrance to this classical-style building, in rather drab grey stone, is flanked by a pair of golden lampposts.

Surely they are not made of gold, or even painted with gold paint, but on a sunny day they are nonetheless brilliant in their contrast with the surroundings.  Each is supported with three legs, each of which is a buxom one-legged sphinx character.  Apparently sphinx icons were quite popular in Europe during the Rennaissance.

I can find no online explanation for the ETH lamps, nor any nearby signage to indicate the meaning or import of these lamps and their golden paint.  The base of each lamp indicates the name of its foundry, in nearby Winterthur, but no more.  Perhaps they are a warning to the students who enter ETH, based on the traditional Greek origin of the sphinx: “She is mythicised as treacherous and merciless. Those who cannot answer her riddle suffer a fate typical in such mythological stories, as they are killed and eaten by this ravenous monster.” [Wikipedia]


Morning walk

A time-lapse movie of my walk to Zürichberg.

I enjoy my walk to Zurichberg every day, and have long wanted to share it.  So today I experimented with a time-lapse movie.  The walk to the viewpoint took me 23 minutes; the movie will take you one minute to watch.  (For the steep parts you unfortunately get a close look at the stairs, not the pretty scenery.  I’ll have to experiment further!)

The map below is from another day, when I continued clockwise past the “End” to return home.

walk map

Uetliberg to Sihlbrugg

A hike along the entire length of the ridgeline on the western shore of Zürichsee.

From the windows of our flat we look across central Zürich to the steep slopes of Uetliberg, with its summit hotel, restaurant, and observation tower; the map below is very nearly that same view.  I’ve visited there many times for the sunset view, and once for a walk with Andy south along its ridgeline as far as Felsenegg.  But I’ve longed to walk the entire ridge, and today seemed to be the day: I walked from Ringlikon at right to Sihlbrugg at the left edge of the map below.  It’s much longer than it looks! Read on and check out the gallery.


Continue reading “Uetliberg to Sihlbrugg”

Spring snow

A dusting of snow, after spring had already arrived.

A snowy morning on Zurichberg.After hiking in a t-shirt on Saturday – a balmy day (close to 20ºC) – I was surprised to wake this morning to see snow covering Uetliberg – the hill on the opposite side of the city.  As I climbed my usual route to Zürichberg I soon passed through above the snowline and, where just two days earlier I saw families out preparing their tiny garden plots for the new growing season, the daffodils were covered in a dusting of snow.

Spring snowfalls are nothing new to me.  But what surprises me is that this is only the fourth snowfall I’ve seen in Zürich this year, and none of them have dropped more than one or two cm of snow, even in the higher terrain.  So I’m wondering: when is it ever winter, anyway?