When I was on my way to meet Hans Udo, the label ‘homeless’ kept echoing in my head. I was curious but also sceptical. However, by the time I was saying my goodbyes to him, I had already met a man who was a tour guide, a theatre actor, an able lumber artist, someone who can be credited for opening the first ever McDonalds Drive Thru in Europe, and someone who over past decade has become a champion for homeless community in Barcelona.
Hans was also the first moving story I had the pleasure of talking to.
From the moment I met Hans, he meant business.
“So, what do you want to know from me and how much time do you have?” “Around 2 to 3 hours I suppose.”
“In that case let me try a new walking tour with you. It will be shorter than what I usually do. Send me the pictures you take, and I will also clock the time we cover. If it makes sense to me afterwards, I can offer this as a new guided tour."
We were already walking.
He showed me the iron barricading in front of the famous Liceu theatre, "It didn't use to exist. They put it here to prevent homeless from sleeping on the porch."
He then very quickly took me to a street to the left of theatre, and we were close to Gothic quarters in front of Barcelona’s biggest soup kitchen, run by the nuns.
There was a long queue outside.
"They have really good food here. Broth, bread, everything you need. I used to have my lunch here often during my homeless days."
"Once, and I saw a guy sitting next to me who had urinated in his pants. He was not doing well in his life. Looking at him, sitting next to him, I realised that this is not how I can live. No human deserves to live this way. That is when I chose to do something about it. Right here in this soup kitchen. And I must tell you that the nuns are great, and the food is topnotch. But I deserved better. God bless the Spanish people."
I brought myself to ask, "what exactly happened?"
"What happened is that I was traveling in Spain, like a hitchhiker you see. I am not from here. Well, I was not from here. Now I am, but I used to be German. And then one morning I wake up and all my stuff is gone. My passport, money, everything. I was left with 26 cents and a photocopy of my passport that no one believed was mine."
We had been walking quite fast through on a warm day, and so I asked, "Do you want to sit down? Or maybe I can buy you a coffee."
"No! This is my job. I am a tour guide. I do this every day."
“How old are you?” I asked again.
“What do you think? People say I look 55, my documents say I am 65 and I feel like 45. Came to Barcelona 10 years ago and been with Arrels for past 8.”
“Let’s go with 45.” We laughed.
"So you were saying,"
"Yes. So, someone suggests me to go to the German embassy because I am a German guy."
And then he showed me some soup kitchens, private ones, that had been his spots during his hard days. Once again, he remembered the food and the people fondly.
"This man right here. It's closed right now but this guy serves top notch food, better than what you can get in any gourmet restaurant. The croissants are amazing, the coffee is great. What else do you need for a breakfast?"
He tries to check through the half-down shutter if someone is inside or not. "I never slept hungry in those two years. I was living in Parc Ciutadella, eating at these places. Every single day I at least had two meals. I tell you these people of Barcelona are absolutely amazing."
"What happened at the German embassy?"
"So there was this guy and he said that there is a rule between EU counties that if someone gets screwed in Spain, even if he is German, he must be taken care by Spain. Germany has no responsibility. He very conveniently handed me a list of soup kitchens and NGOs for homeless that might help me."
"So they defined you as homeless instead of helping you?"
"What else? He was from my country, and I thought he would understand that I am a respectable man who came to his own embassy for help in a hard time."
"But he didn't" I intercepted.
"No, and I thank him for that today. It was on that list that I found Arrels."
We randomly bumped into some of his friends as we arrived at Rambla of El Raval. It was quiet, somewhat windy but sun had been able to find its way through the trees.
“How many homeless people do you think are in Barcelona?” I pondered loudly. “We counted and it is not that bad. It is around 40,000.”
“But I have lived in Germany and there, particularly in Frankfurt and Berlin, things look so bad.” I told him.
“It is bad there. Germany really struggles with this. Let me ask you a question. Which are the top three European countries in terms of homeless population?” He played a reverse uno on me with this one.
“I lived in Germany, so, I feel it has to be one of the top three. Paris and France in general too has a big issue and even though I have never been to the UK, I have heard the famous Ralph McTell song, Streets of London, so I assume UK would be in top three as well.”
“You are bang on. Tell me you didn’t google that.” He laughed out loud, stating some numbers, “Germany is crazy. By some estimates there are around 800,000 homeless people there. And they have only recently started to count properly and take it seriously.”
“Why do you think we have so many homeless people in Europe?” I asked. also adding from my side, “and I also find it surprising and sad how, many people, particularly men, have absolutely no family. They are so lonely and often living on streets.”
“You are right about that. There is this law in some European countries including Spain that if there is a fight between a man and a woman, man must leave the house and find a place for himself. Often, they are not able to. Then there is also recession and things like that which puts people on streets because they are not able to pay rents. But that is not even the worst thing.”
“It is that once you enter into this world, you meet all these sad lonely people who are generally alcoholics or drug addicts, and then you become one of them and then there is no going back.”
Hans then stopped talking and showed me the main office of Arrels foundation. There were volunteers and beneficiaries all crowding up the front door. The place was bustling.
“I started by doing laundry. I didn’t want to eat for free, and this is the problem with a lot of people on street who were once well off. Their ego stops them from doing these things. But I began by doing laundry. They gave me a room to live, and it was very good. Did I tell you about Piso Cero (floor zero)?”
“No, not yet.”
“It is this dormitory by Arrels where any homeless guy can come and spend a night. They even give breakfast. It is temporary but great for those who don’t have anywhere to go.”
When he was in his late 20s, Hans had places to go. In Stuttgart, he opened Europe’s first McDonald’s drive thru store. And then one day his mother asked him to look in the mirror. He looked older than his age. He sold his store and started to travel. Even worked for a few years here in Spain as a server near Fuerteventura. However, when he went back in his mid-forties, no one wanted to hire him.
“What was the biggest issue?” I asked.
“Well, I didn’t have computer skills and they didn’t want to hire a 40 something waiter who can’t operate a computer.”
By then, we had walked for more than 2 hours and were now arriving at an apartment run by Arrels that he wanted to show me. The people at reception allowed us in and as we climbed the floors through stairs, we saw several people just chilling in the lobby. He took me to the roof top. I could see Montjuic from there.
“Isn’t this wonderful?” He asked me and I nodded.
“So, anyone can live here?” I asked.
“Oh no. You need to be clean. No drugs, no alcohol, no bad things. Only then they accept you and then you work. I will take you to the workshop in a few minutes. It is not like anyone who has addiction issues can just come here and stay.”
At the workshop managed by Arrels, not far from the apartment, I saw several beautiful handicraft items available to buy. But even more beautiful was to see the people who were doing different kinds of jobs. Someone was binding a book, someone on a wheelchair designing a webpage, someone stitching a scarf. It was very powerful and instantly the most heart-warming place I have seen in Barcelona. We walked around, met people. I took some pictures.
“This is my office. I really enjoy making things with lumber.” He showed me into personal cabin. I was further impressed when he showed me pictures from the theatre plays that he acts in quite often.
Like an onion, Hans’s life kept peeling off in front of my eyes. There were so many layers.
“Did I tell you about this thing with Metallica? You know Metallica, right? They used to be famous in the eighties.”
I laughed and nodded.
“So, one day Ferran, my boss at Arrels, took me to attend a concert by Metallica and I hate them. I judge them. I don’t like their music. What do they know about life? But I still go with Ferran. Before the show starts, we are brought to the backstage area, and they are sitting and waiting for us.”
My eyes widened suddenly. I didn’t expect this turn.
“They wanted to do something about homelessness in the USA. That’s why they were making these tours to understand how organizations like Arrels work. Can you believe? These freaking superstars that everyone knows can also be such nice people. I feel so guilty about my own judgment.”
We are back to the Liceu metro. It had been almost 3 hours and then we look at a man sitting on the street, lost in his thoughts.
“This is the message I want to give. Stop judging someone just because he lives on the street. I judged Metallica because of their Music and who looks like a fool now? Everyone has a story, at least give them a chance. Most of us just want someone to hear us out. I mean I judged Metallica and people judge a homeless person. What’s the difference?”
Soon after, Hans disappeared after giving me a quick hug.
That day, he kept saying that he finally felt at home here in Barcelona. It made me wonder, what is home? Is it an exact tangible place where one grows up with their family? Is it a country or a town? Is it the people around you? Is it something constant or does it keep changing? Is it just a state of mind?
Maybe, home is all of that. Maybe, it is our place in the world that we keep looking for. Maybe, it is the exact opposite of not belonging.