These are the experiences of my second Street Retreat. Click here to read the experiences of the first one in 2011.
Last Update: 14 September 2014
Taken at the end of the Street Retreat. We started with nothing. In the end we were packed with bags, blankets and cardboard.
In 2011 I did my very first Street Retreat. This year I’ve decided to invite Zen-Buddhist Monk Claude AnShin Thomas to Basel and to organize a Street Retreat in my home town. So from Sep 6 to Sep 10 2014, in a group of 11 people, I lived on the streets of Basel, without money, without a sleeping bag, sleeping outside and begging for everything. Street Retreats are a spiritual Zen practice.
The nine non-monastic participants have collectively raised 8’489 Swiss Francs, therefore on average 943 Swiss Francs per participant. After the retreat, the group has decided to donate the funds to seven non-profit organizations with the bulk of the money going to small organizations in strong need of financial resources, plus 100 CHF as a thank you to the church St. Anton that invited us to sleep one night in their facilities. The money wasn’t distributed evenly. We used a democratic approach to first decide which organizations to include. After deciding on 7 organizations, everyone had 7 votes that could been placed freely, and out of the votes the contributions were calculated:
(1) Gassenküche Basel, soup kitchen for homeless (1’864 Swiss Francs)
(2) Plusminus Budget- und Schuldenberatung Basel, help for people with financial problems and debt (1’465 Swiss Francs)
(3) Schwarzer Peter – Verein für Gassenarbeit, various services for homeless people (1’465 Swiss Francs)
(4) Tischlein deck dich, collecting food and distributing it for free (666 Swiss Francs)
(5) Verein Anlaufstelle für Sans-Papiers, help for immigrants without valid documents (932 Swiss Francs)
(6) Verein Surprise, offers jobs for homeless and other services (266 Swiss Francs)
(7) Zaltho Foundation, promoting mindfulness and non-violence (1’731 Swiss Francs)
(8) Church St. Anton Basel, a small thank you for letting us sleep there (100 Swiss Francs)
The money will be handed out to these organizations within the next 14 days.
As a preparation for our begging, we had to beg for 1080 CHF in front of the retreat. This time, this was difficult for me. It’s already my second street retreat, so I’ve decided to not ask the same people that I have asked the last time. Some of them were extremely generous the last time, so I did not want to exploit the trust and relationship with them. I also thought about cheating and not beg at all, paying the money myself. As the organizer I felt bad to remind all participants of the begging and then not do it myself, so I decided to finally surrender and just do it. I’ve written an email to 83 people, and in the end 26 of them decided to support me, with the range of 10 CHF to 200 CHF. First, I’ve written to only 20-30 people, but as the initial response was quite slow, I soon had to increase the number of people. In the end, I’ve managed to raise the 1080 CHF in 12 days. As I am quite impatient, those 12 days actually felt more like 30-45 days, so I was quite nervous whether I will be able to raise the full amount in time. This year I’ve decided to include a PayPal-Link to make donations more convenient, and it paid off, as the majority of donations came in through PayPal. Also, in my text, I emphasized quite strongly that the money would be donated to charities. I’ve realized during the retreat that my begging could have been purer: To simply tell what I was going to do, and then to ask whether this person would support me, therefore making it more about supporting me personally rather than something external.
Our Zendo and “headquarters” was located at St. Johanns-Park, a beautiful park near the Rhine river and the city center. It turned out to be the right place. On our second day we learned that this park was a former hospital cemetary where poor people were buried and that there still would be skeletons in the earth.
Our Zendo in St. Johanns-Park
Difficulty to find a sleeping place:
It was very difficult to find a sleeping place outside. We were looking for places with a roof and that offered a certain protection. Usually abandoned buildings, schools or construction sites could fit those criteria. Most construction sites and abandoned buildings were locked up quite heavily. In the end we were only able to find two places: a temporary wooden bicycle and motorbike stand near the University, and one large party tent that we slipped into.
Our sleeping place for two nights
Our sleeping place for two nights
It’s cold by the water:
One night we slept near the Rhine in a party tent. This was my coldest night. The surface was grass, so it got quite wet from below, and the humidity also came from the water. It’s better to avoid placed near the water, as they are usually wet and windy. It’s also advisable to avoid grass as this gets wet as well.
It was more difficult to find cardboard in Basel than in Bielefeld. We were lucky and found some right in the beginning. The other option would have been to go to storage rooms of supermarkets and ask there.
This time, church bells were an important tool. Every quarter of hour there is a bell, so if you don’t have a watch, you start to listen more carefully to the bells to know what time it is. I didn’t sleep much during the first night, so I was listening to the bells impatiently and waiting for the morning to come.
When you don’t have a blanket or sleeping bag, it gets cold at night – even in summer-time. The more experienced participants knew how to support each other by cuddling. However I realized one more time that I am not a cuddling person. So I made the decision to sleep on the side and not cuddle. I preferred being cold but having my own space, instead of being warm and feeling restricted, not able to move. When temperatures would have been painfully cold, I probably would have cuddled as well, trading sleep quality for warmth.
The retreat started at 5pm and we arrived at the park at around 6pm. So we had about 45 minutes to beg for dinner, which we usually do in groups of two. That first begging round was very difficult for me. I felt embarrassed. We have been rejected in the first few places, and we also asked at a place that already gave something to someone else from our group – which felt even more embarrassing. We then asked at a small focacceria and were welcomed very warmly by Italian owner Sylvie Mazzeo. She asked her husband to make us two “pinsa romana“, an ancient pizza from roman times. Our first success, we were very happy! The others in our group got three additional pizzas, a bottle of Coca Cola, fruit and many other things. So we had pizza for dinner. Claude AnShin reminded us that we might want to leave some leftovers. That was a helpful suggestion, because we would have eaten everything, which would have left us with no breakfast. So we left one pizza and were happy to have it for breakfast. Lesson learned!
Drunk person vomited next to us:
About 30 minutes after we went to sleep on the first night, we were visited by a very drunk person. About five meters next to us the person vomited and continued to do so for the next few minutes. The sounds and smells were not very pleasant. Nevertheless, it was manageable, so we stayed.
The most difficult thing for me this year was not brushing and flossing my teeth for 10 days. I could feel strongly how unhealthy this was for my mouth and teeth. One person in our group had the idea to beg for toothbrushes and toothpaste. Claude AnShin was okay with it, as long as we begged for it. Some of our group went to dentists and were able to get some toothbrushes and paste. I have tried to do it in two pharmacies, but they were not willing to give away brushes, they only gave some samples of paste. Note to self: If you do another Street Retreat, beg for brushes and paste on the very first day! Also, think about giving some brushes, paste and floss to the next homeless person you see!
Health and illness:
One other challenge when living on the street is illness. I was not feeling very well and had some severe headache. At home I would just take a painkiller. On the street the only option I had was to drink as much water as possible and to lay down. Of course, I could have tried to go to a pharmacy or doctor to beg for a painkiller, but in that moment I didn’t had the energy to do so. Imagine you are living on the street and having a fever, or having diarrhea. It’s quite a challenge. Note to self: Give some paracetamol to homeless people!
Public toilets, Toilet paper:
Simple things like toilet paper, and free public toilets. Normally I never think about these things. I’ve learned that there are 52 free public toilets in Basel. There are already 30 modern toilets that are self-cleaning, but cost money. The city is planning to continuously replace the free conventional toilets with self-cleaning, paid ones. I’m not sure that this is such a great idea. Also, toilet paper. We were very lucky that the toilet we were using was maintained very well. It was cleaned every day and every morning there was one new toilet paper roll. Sometimes, the toilet paper would be used up during the day. What if you don’t carry any kleenex with you? Note to self: Put an additional roll of toilet paper to some public toilets. Give a homeless a pack of kleenex.
We begged at a McDonalds. While the manager said they wouldn’t give away food for free, he was willing to buy us two cheeseburgers with his own money. As we don’t eat meat, we gave the cheeseburgers to the next homeless person.
It was very difficult to get blankets or sleeping bags in Basel. We asked at some dry-cleaners whether they’d have stuff that wasn’t picked up, but didn’t have any luck. Then we asked at 8 different hotels, no luck. We even asked at the most exclusive hotel of Basel, Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois. We had to courageously pass the portiers and security guards, which went quite smoothly. The receptionist was very nice. She asked at two different departments of the building, but in the end no luck. The last hotel we have asked was Hilton Basel. The receptionist referred us to the front-desk manager, who was extremely kind and gave us two high-quality blankets as a gift of the house. He insisted we should not return them. We assured him that we would donate the blankets afterwards. He shook our hands and with a huge smile wished us all the best. What a nice person!
One part of the Street Retreat is to walk a lot. We would divide into groups of two and then walk through the city, to beg for food, blankets and to find new sleeping places. Usually we did this between 9am and 12am in the mornings and then between 3pm and 6pm in the evenings. So usually we walked between 4-6 hours every day, which turned out to be a beautiful street pilgrimage. I have visited places in Basel that I have never visited before. And I have visited places that I have not visited for 20 years, for example my elementary school when we asked for a place to sleep in their backyard.
Begging together, Eating together:
After begging for food, we would meet in the park and share everything. The feeling of solidarity and community was very strong. So even if one group was not lucky, there were always others that have received more. So no one would go hungry, no matter whether we was lucky or not. We would sit in a circle, put everything in the center, and then share everything. The sharing was a beautiful experience. We would take a falafel, take a bite, and then pass it on to the next person. We would fill a cup, take a sip, and then pass it on. This made a huge impression on me. In my ordinary life it’s just me, so I eat what’s on my plate. Here, the “I” was replaced by “We”. It was a powerful experience to share food in this way.
What kind of food did we get? Pizza, falafel, warm Pakistani meal, warm Indian meal, apples, oranges, grapes, lots of chocolate, mango jam, cherry jam, lots of bread, sandwiches, cheese, Coca Cola, lots of other soft drinks, Rivella, popcorn, croissants, cake, orange juice, grapefruit juice, mango juice, bananas, mineral water, Panettone cake, and so much more I can’t even remember. We had everything! And plenty of it! We even had to give some food away.
Krishna Take Away:
When we were visited by the television reporter, he asked us whether he could film us during begging. The first place we went was the Indian Restaurant Krishna Take Away. The camera made them feel very uncomfortable. Actually they were quite upset with the reporter, because they assumed that in this way he would abuse or exploit vulnerable homeless people. I could feel that they felt pressured by the camera, so they prepared two complete meals for us. The next day, after the retreat was finished, we went there for our closing meal. Therefore, giving away two meals brought them 8 paying customers the next day. Karma doesn’t always work like this. Here it did.
Basel’s Social System:
We tried to find out how it works to be homeless in Basel. We visited the Heilsarmee Männerheim and the Caritas Second-Hand shop. The salvation army told us, that they would offer three nights for free without registration – as an opportunity to settle down for people that for example came from abroad. If you want to stay longer, you need to register with the city. The same was true for Caritas. In order to get clothes, you need to register with a social worker. The goal of this process is to find out why people ended up on the street and to initiate a process of rehabilitation. While I like the intention to offer support and a process, I don’t like to be pressured to talk with social workers, just to be “eligible” to receive food, clothes or shelter. I wonder how many percent of the homeless are registered and how many choose not to. I would also be interested to learn how homeless people perceive the process of “registration” and “support”. Note to self: Talk to a homeless person about this.
The greatest asset we had was that we were not alone. We were supported by the group, by our Zen teacher, and by our meditation practice. Being alone on the street must be terribly lonely. Note to self: Take the time and talk to a homeless person. Give him/her a feeling that he/she is not alone. Listen to their wisdom. Learn from them.
An important part was our daily meditation practice. At 7am and 7pm we would do sitting meditation followed by recitations. That was an important practice and offered us structure and stability.
How do you distinguish a homeless person from an ordinary person, especially in summer? The homeless person is wearing a winter jacket! We were fortunate that the weather was very warm and that it didn’t rain. Had the retreat started one or two weeks earlier, it would have been much colder and much more wet. I was wearing the following: a t-shirt, a thermo-shirt, a warm hoodie, pajama pants, a winter jacket, a cap and a baseball cap. And still, although it was 27 degrees during the day, the 12-14 degrees during the night felt very cold, especially if you don’t have a blanket or sleeping bag, and if you are sleeping on the floor. I can only imagine how cold it must be when it is 5 degrees, or 0 degrees, or -5 degrees. It must be a huge challenge. During the first two nights without a blanket, I discovered that I could use my winter jacket as a blanked. It was much more comfortable to use it as a blanket than to wear it, as you can also squeeze a part of your legs underneath it. That made all the difference. A long winter coat would have made an even better blanket. Note to self: When it’s cold, buy a homeless person an additional blanket or winter coat from a second hand shop.
During day it was up to 27 degrees Celsius. During night it gets cold if you don’t have a blanket.
Giving back to the place that serves us:
One beautiful practice that we did every day was giving back to the places that served us. The Street Retreat started with a one-day meditation retreat at the Swisspeace Academy. During the part that we call ‘working meditation’ the 11 participants cleaned the whole building: floors, toilets, windows, picking up trash and leaves outside and much more. The idea is to (1) not leave any traces, and to (2) leave the place in a better condition than before.
When being on the street, we got up between 6:00am and 6:30am. We then would go to the St. Johanns-Park and spend 10-20 minutes to pick up trash. It’s incredible how much trash a group of 11 people can pick up in this time. I wonder whether the people from Stadtgärtnerei Basel noticed when they arrived later to clean the park. Picking up trash and giving back to places is a beautiful practice, and I wish I am able to make this a habit.
Claude AnShin Thomas, after he returned from the Vietnam war and from the hospital, lived on the street from 1970-1972, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So for him, it was not an “experience” or “adventure”, it was a reality. And now, as a mendicant monk, he continues to live homeless, only staying where he is invited. For me, his guidance was authentic, and I am very grateful for this experience.
WDR Documentary about the Street Retreat in Leverkusen in 2010
More information about the work of Claude AnShin Thomas
Book by Claude AnShin Thomas
Claude AnShin Thomas has written a book about his path from soldier to Zen-monk and his experience with violence. I recommend it whole-heartedly.
English version / German version