As chairwoman of the Forderverein Winternotprogramm, Aline Zieher has experienced the limits of her ability to help. Nevertheless, she continues.
Aline Zieher: Volunteers to help people living on the streets Photo: Miguel Ferraz
site: Ms. Zieher, when did you first start volunteering?
Aline Zieher: It was in the winter emergency program in 2012. Before that, I was very busy at work and therefore limited accordingly. Since 2009, however, I have also had another honorary position.
What is that?
It’s a foundation whose goal is to dedicate a charity program to former forced laborers, especially in the Crimea, and to promote research on National Socialist forced labor.
You mean the Kurt and Herma Romer Foundation in Hamburg?
Exactly. Herma Romer was a good friend of mine, we had known each other for many years when she started the foundation. I was always involved in some way, even though I couldn’t stay involved because of my job. She died in 2009 and before that I was asked by her to continue to be active for the foundation.
And how did you get involved with the Forderverein Winternotprogramm, which provides meals for homeless people who receive a bed but no food from the city of Hamburg in the winter?
Some things happen by chance in life. I always had the feeling that homeless people were at the bottom of the social pyramid. At that time, I was looking for a meaningful activity that I could do well once a week for several hours in addition to other tasks. It was just a good fit at the time.
At some point, though, those few hours a week turned into a full-time job.
I guess that’s true. In 2016, the former chairmen quit. It’s often the case in volunteer work that there’s not as much interest in filling these board jobs. My colleague and I agreed to take it over. Because dissolving the association was unthinkable.
71, born and raised in the Frankfurt area, has lived in Hamburg for 40 years. She is a sociologist and began working in 2012 as a volunteer in the Winternotprogramm association, which organizes meals for homeless people in the winter emergency shelters in Hamburg. She has been the 1st chairwoman of the association since 2016. She is also involved in the board of the Kurt-und-Herma-Romer-Stiftung, which supports victims of fascist forced labor.
The "Bild" newspaper once called you the "winter angel" of Hamburg.
Oh yes, I’m sure that was meant very nicely, but I really had to wrestle with that. Imagine opening the newspaper and reading that you are an angel!
Oh, I’m sure there are many people who would be happy about that. Are you perhaps simply being modest?
No, I just find it inappropriate. Without my colleague, who does all the IT and set it up, and my other colleagues with internal tasks, it would never work, including the many volunteers. But nobody talks about that. So it is simply not true. In my view, this has nothing to do with modesty.
What do you do as chairwoman?
Last year we managed the whole program with 300 volunteers. You have to coordinate that and find and accompany new volunteers. Teams are formed that organize themselves. If someone drops out, there are standby lists so that there are always enough people to serve a meal in the municipal shelters at 7 p.m. sharp. In addition, there are the logistics; we get 40 percent of the food from the Tafel, and we buy the rest. The third focus is on acquiring donations.
What kind of food do you prepare?
There is always a hot soup and sandwiches. The sandwiches should look like what people see in bakery displays but can’t afford. And of course they should be healthy. So there are always vegetables on the bread. Tomato bread with onions is a big hit! We try to always offer a sweet dish because people on the street are hypothermic and have low blood sugar. From 5 p.m., people can come into the shelter. Then they get coffee or tea and something small to stave off hunger – fruit, something salty or whatever is available. After a few weeks, the homeless people know that their needs are being met. That brings peace to the night.
Why is it so important to you that the food also looks nice?
It’s not just about pure material satisfaction. A nice meal might give people back a little of their dignity. We want to cater to all tastes. It’s nice to see when people are happy. Especially around Christmas we try very hard. The homeless people are in a bad mood during that time because it reminds them of their better times. It’s rather ambivalent – nice on the one hand, sad on the other. Last year we packed small packages with chocolate and gloves. These are little things that can make a big difference.
Is that even possible this winter with the corona pandemic?
In the summer, the city left the shelters open and took care of the supplies. With our municipal partner "Fordern und Wohnen" we also asked ourselves in August how we could do that with volunteer support this winter. We went through all the variants, but the risk of infection is simply too high. That’s why we only take care of breakfast and the city pays a caterer for dinner. Nevertheless, we want to continue to prepare small things for people in the pre-Christmas period. And we also try to make our donors aware of providing other things. Very important is fresh underwear. Socks and gloves are also in short supply.
Shouldn’t the city actually provide food for homeless people independently of Corona?
The shelters are funded by taxpayers’ money. Normally, people are entitled to benefits if they have worked for a certain amount of time. This systemic logic is the rationale for why it is not possible for the city to provide additional funding for meals.
Should politicians be held more accountable there?
You have to ask yourself whether our system of helping the homeless is still appropriate in general. There are projects like Housing First, for example, where homeless people are first brought to a shelter and then helped to find their way back into civilian life. Not all people manage to do that if they’ve lived on the streets for too long, but in perspective, that would be a better way. But as a volunteer, you can’t familiarize yourself with everything either. You have to know your limits.
What do you mean by that?
None of us are professionals in helping the homeless. You need experience and expertise. That’s why we concentrate on what we’re good at. And managing 300 volunteers and all the logistics takes time. We don’t have the illusion that we will change anything in the general situation of the people.
Doesn’t that frustrate you sometimes?
I’ve asked myself before what we’re actually doing. And whether it’s enough. But you need this realistic view. If you do something, you should do it well. Of course, we on the board are also thinking about how we can expand our work. But we are purely donation-based, we will never be able to buy a house with apartments for the homeless. Building up frustration about that doesn’t help. Then you’d rather do the part you can do. And do it well and reliably.
You’ve actually been retired for seven years. Don’t you sometimes long for peace and quiet?
Yes, sometimes it might be too much. But it’s what I’ve chosen to do. Of course, you also make a commitment, but if it didn’t please me to see that it works and reaches the people concerned, I wouldn’t do it. At the food bank, you sometimes recognize people, have a chat and treat them with respect. That makes people happy.
Has your way of thinking about homelessness changed over the years?
I’ve always had a view on social things, but I only knew the fates of homeless people from the newspapers. That’s where something changes when you come into direct contact with those affected. You learn that you have been lucky in life. Maybe it sounds exaggerated, but it also makes you humble. In the sense of: Give something back to society when you yourself have been spared extreme strokes of fate.
Where does your interest in social problems come from?
I studied sociology.
And where did your interest in sociology come from?
My grandmother, born in 1892, was an avowed social democrat. That was also the course of her life. She learned to be an educator and studied, which was very special for that time. So there are certainly family backgrounds.
It’s noticeable that you don’t like to talk about yourself that much.
I don’t want to stand out like that. The fact that we are successful with the winter emergency program is because we are a good team on the board. It’s a joint product. Somebody just has to chair it. Personally, I don’t feel comfortable talking about myself, but it’s also not really appropriate.
What is the response of homeless people to your help?
I would say … mostly positive.
Some homeless people have experienced terrible things. Of course, they don’t ask about it. They are then rather restrained. But if you look more closely, you see that they are very happy about it. My motto is: No homeless person has to say thank you. In volunteer work, it’s all about attitude. If you expect thanks, you shouldn’t even start. Sure, you get a lot in return and you also do it for yourself. But I find it disrespectful to expect the other person to approach you with an attitude of gratitude.