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Secret Sleepers

In the middle of one of the world’s richest cities, awash with money from all over the world, a city of luxury brands and private banks, there is a hidden population, living in the undergrowth, like a slice of Calais' "jungle" in Geneva, Switzerland. They are the secret sleepers, hidden from view, under bridges and along the forested narrow banks of the Rivers Arve and Rhone as they flow through the city. They are just a stone’s throw away from luxury watchmaker Rolex’s headquarters, almost directly below the tower of the Swiss national television, which seems to be looking further afield.

They come from numerous countries - Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Mali and Nigeria. Some group together under one side of a bridge only accessible by ladder - a camp of a dozen or so tents, completely invisible to anyone passing over the busy bridge, with its tramline, two stops from private bank Pictet’s headquarters.

On the other side, there’s a walking path under the same bridge, a public space visited by street cleaners every morning, and a designated graffiti zone, the only evidence of its night-time population are bags and bed rolls stashed under the eaves, which the cleaners leave in tacit agreement. Anything left at ground level will be removed. They have their orders, and this is Switzerland, after all.

Further along the river, where the bank is steep and narrow and its trees fenced-off, still others sleep on what was once a footpath and now is like the setting for a poor-man’s treasure hunt with hidden bags and materials set aside for the night. There are rolled-up mats, pairs of shoes, mattresses and drying clothes hanging from the vegetation. There are individual spaces demarcated with tree trunks, and smaller branches beneath to keep the rats at bay.

Rolex’s foundation offered the city a grand bridge – cost unknown - creating a grandiloquent architectural statement leading to its headquarters. This too provides shelter for still other sleepers that only the dog walkers and joggers seem to know about, though they look away and carry on, as if these secret sleepers in a Swiss city don't exist.

Geneva authorities admit there is a problem, especially this year, with the Covid-19 crisis which has thrown people into poverty and across the barrier into homelessness, either directly through sickness, or loss of work or both. However, they don’t know just how many people are sleeping on the streets. They're looking at the numbers, they say, and intend to respond but progress is slow and bureaucratic according to critics.

Sub-zero winter temperatures are making conditions worse it has been left to grassroots organisations and a patchwork of volunteers to help, to seek donations, cook food, and find the people lost on the streets and under the bridges. The problem is only confounded by the legal status of many of these people who may be technically illegal, and so fear any contact with the authorities.
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