LODZ - The St. Brother Albert Homeless Shelter in this city in central Poland needs 60,000 zloty ($20,000) for renovation. To raise the funds, the shelter’s residents are offering "urban survival" workshops to teach people how to survive in the city without a penny.  

Jerzy Czapla, the director of the homeless shelter, says he hopes managers and businessmen will sign up for the workshop. The price of the workshop is: “Pay what you want.”

I decide to spend 24 hours living as a homeless person. When I tell the idea to my wife, she says: “Start getting used to it.”

 The shelter is hidden at the very end of the city, in a small building with old windows and a leaky roof. The 80 homeless people living here at the moment have at their disposal two showers, but to use one of them you need your own showerhead. I don’t dare enter the restroom. Seven bottles anti-lice product are used here every day.

One of the residents, Darek, is my guide. The 45-year-old is clean, has all his teeth and regularly reads the newspaper I work for – it’s free-to-read at McDonald’s.   

Darek lost his home eight years ago. Why? It all comes down to one word: “Vodka.” He doesn’t drink so much anymore since the shelter is closed to people with alcohol issues. Now he only drinks a couple of beers, and Vodka is a special treat reserved for Sundays.

My host invites me to his room for breakfast. I get some cold milk in a plastic cup with cornflakes and five slices of dried bread. The room is filled with bunk beds and plugged-in electronics: everyone here has a mobile, some even laptops.

A while later we board a tram towards Castorama, a big DIY and home improvement store one hour away from the city center. I am wearing the outfit I use to clean the basement, and I realize that the fellow passengers choose the most distant seats. 

  Upon arrival Darek heads toward the main entrance, greeting  all the security men on his way – he seems to know everybody here. Eventually, we sit down on a bench next to the parking area and wait for “a client.” “You choose a guy with a big cargo,” he explains, “and you follow him to his car. When they are about to put their bags into the boot, you offer to help. On the condition that they let you take the trolley back to the trolley stand. In Castorama, trolleys have coin locks. You can get two or five zloty coins (60 cents or $1.60). Try it.”

Dying of embarrassment, I approach a promising couple of 60 year-olds with a heavily loaded trolley. When I offer help with my trembling voice, the man nods barely looking at me. A couple of minutes later I am happily pushing my booty towards the trolley stand. Then, I realize – there’s no coin in the lock, just a worthless plastic token. Darek laughs at me: “I forgot to tell you to always check.”  

As I try again, my discomfort slowly disappears, even if people look at me with an obvious disdain. They’re not rude or arrogant, they just despise me.  Nevertheless, three hours and 50 zloty ($16) later, we can afford a lunch break. 

In the neighboring grocery store Darek greets the cleaning lady – she sometimes lets him wash himself in the handicapped toilet.


An abandoned factory in Lodz - Photo: Madzia Bryll

My guide chooses the menu. Beers go first into the basket. When I suggest two Kaiser rolls, I get a lesson – one baguette is a couple of cents cheaper... Every penny counts. With four wieners and paté from the lowest shelf we pay 9 zloty ($3) for everything.

In the evening the parking is too empty. We could collect cans, but it starts to rain. Nevermind, we already have plans for the evening – we are going to a concert.  

 On May 1, Darek went to a picnic organized by a left-wing party. It wasn’t out of political interest, just for the free sausages. While he was there, he talked to the singer of the band that was performing, Alegorya. As a result, he was invited to the next concert. It’s happening tonight in a bar in the city center. 

Despite the cover fee and bouncers, we enter for free because the singer meets us at the front door. Inside, young people dance to rock music. My companion asks what I want to drink but I can see he pulls a face when he ends up paying 12 zloty ($4) for two pints. If he had been alone, he would have bought a beer at the supermarket and drunk it discreetly inside the bar.

 It is long after midnight when we come out in the pouring rain. My shoes are soaked, I’m cold. We need to find real shelter since we can’t find any dry cardboard boxes to sleep in. One of the Stalinist development projects would be a good solution – their staircases are well heated. We turn the handles of the entrance doors hoping that one will open, but with no success. In the end Darek suggests a night bus. 

We get on the N2 bus, which crosses the city from one end to the other. The heating is on. The rhythmic sound of the engine puts us easily to sleep. We need to leave the bus once though, when the driver has his 20-minute break. Then again, about 4 a.m., the night service stops. Unfortunately, day buses are not heated.

 Early Sunday morning, the streets of Lodz are empty. But at 7 a.m. a group of people is waiting at a tram stop on Dworcowa Street. Darek knows most of them. They’re going to the Holy Redeemer Parish where they is a soup kitchen on Sunday mornings. 

We arrive 30 minutes early but there is already a line at the front door. Inside, the acid smell of unwashed bodies and dirty clothes prevent me from swallowing my sandwich. I am surrounded by people with grey faces, greasy hair and dandruff.

A volunteer starts a prayer and advertise a pilgrimage – three days, all inclusive, just one condition: no alcohol. The woman next to me probably won’t go: her hands shake so much that she spills her tea.

On our way back to the shelter I ask Darek what he usually does after the soup kitchen. He says he goes to the DIY store, and then to the motorcycle speedway – he knows the right persons and enters for free.

I wonder what happiness is for him. One day the owner of a transport company asked him to collect receipts. When Darek found a receipt for 600 zloty, the man gave him 50 zloty in return. Darek expected at best 5 zloty. “That was happiness” – he says.