“A little piece of home

The Cologne “Notel”, the emergency sleeping and sick shelter of the Spiritan Foundation Knechtsteden, is 25 years old. A visit to the Catholic facility that means more than “a little bit of home” for drug-addicted, homeless men.

“Here's the room where there's the least snoring,” Alex says as he slips the blue sun bedding over the pillow. “The colleague next door hums like an animal.” The man with the long hair and the moustache knows his way around the “Notel”. For Alex, a trained roofer and tiler, the Cologne emergency sleeping center for drug addicts has almost become a second home. Because here men in his situation find a bed, a warm meal, a sympathetic ear and peace of mind. And this for exactly 25 years.

On 2. February 1990, the “Notel” at Victoriastrasse 12 – a good ten minutes walk from Cologne's main train station – was founded by the Spiritanerstiftung Knechtsteden. In keeping with the order's motto “We do the work that no one wants to do,” nine professionals and many volunteers take care of people here about whom one would otherwise tend to turn up one's nose.

No missionary work

And the top-floor infirmary cares for drug addicts who are not sick enough for the clinic, but not healthy enough for the streets either. “No one is proselytized here or urged to undergo therapy,” explains Notel co-founder and director Barbel Ackerschott, “but we want people to keep their dignity.” Therefore, guests can not only eat, shower and sleep there, but also have to follow a few rules when they are admitted to the Notel from 8 p.m. onwards.

“How are you, Alex?” asks staff member Elena as she searches the 50-year-old in the office for drugs, weapons, syringes and the like. “If I were to say 'well!If I were to say, 'I'm not going to do that,' it would be bragging,” he tells the young woman. He was one of the first to wait in the gateway on this cold evening. His few belongings now go into a locker, the washed-out jeans and the gray sweatshirt he exchanges for a tracksuit, which lies ready in the blue plastic box with the label “Alex”. The names Martin, Michael, Udo or Johann on the other boxes refer to other permanent guests of the Catholic facility. Just like the maximum twelve users, Alex, who by now has white rubber slippers on his feet, will get his clothes back freshly washed the next morning.

“Getting by without HIV and hepatitis”

Almost 79.000 overnight stays and over 2.There have been 800 guests at the Notel in all these years, Barbel Ackerschott reckons. And: One million syringes were exchanged and condoms distributed here. “It has nothing to do with morals, but with health,” says the 57-year-old with the short white hair matter-of-factly. “We have to look that people get through without HIV and hepatitis.”This is how the needles end up in a special yellow container, which is disposed of by the garbage collectors. The new syringes come from the health department, explains the social worker, addiction therapist, theologian and businesswoman.

Ackerschott is the soul of the Notel. “Barbel is the best!”Raimondo, who like Alex is now sitting at the large wooden table in the common room, gestures theatrically with his cigarette. Shortly before, the manager reminded him to speak German with his buddy Pedro – another rule at the Notel. “After all, I don't want the drug mafia to do its business here in secret,” explains Ackerschott. Also in the spirit of non-violence, except for their dog Pia in the Notel: Animals must stay outside. “Dogs can be a weapon, and they are readily used to transport drugs,” the director says.

Around eight-thirty, the men sit around the bare wooden table. Tonight we have pasta with minced meat sauce, served with water, milk, cocoa or tea, and of course no alcohol. Only the addictive drug nicotine is allowed in the Notel. Some eat in silence, others talk about their day – just like in a family. Udo tells that he was scrounging in the pedestrian zone today. “But it's getting more and more difficult, there's hardly anyone around.”

Similar fates

Alex is too proud. Just like Michael, he prefers to collect scrap metal and have it sold for a few euros at a scrap dealer. Or he does odd jobs on construction sites. “Do I look good enough for photos?”, he coquettes as the camera clicks. “The police have many pictures of me.” Because Alex has also “messed up” in his 50 years. But life has often not been fair to him either.

Many of the stories around the table are similar: job gone, wife gone, apartment gone, turn to drugs, off to misery. In addition, there are serious illnesses here and there, abuse as a child, destroyed life dreams.

Like Amir from Iran. Since his divorce, the trained blacksmith has been trying to get a job and an apartment again. Or Udo, who is unable to work as a chemical lab technician and has not yet been able to regain his footing.

At the Notel they experience a bit of warmth and an ideal world. “Here you are a human being,” says Michael, a regular guest for five years. “You have someone to talk to if something's on your mind.”Thus the somewhat different hotel offers “a little bit of home – at least on a small scale,” as Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne puts it, who is “happy and grateful” for the facility that has been in existence for 25 years. Through the care of the staff, the guests experience “signs of God's warmth and closeness”. Because: “You are valuable, you are important, even in the eyes of God,” emphasizes Woelki, who lives just a few hundred meters away.

Although the Notel is a Catholic institution, faith remains an optional topic. Before the guests are admitted, Ackerschott and the team meet in the small prayer room together with Franciscan Brother Markus Fuhrmann to pray vespers or celebrate a church service. And in the late evening at the Complet, prayers are said for every single person staying overnight. Then the leader pushes slips of paper with the names of the guests between the pages of the Bible. “The ritual means that we all 'give up. You go to bed more relaxed.”In the back of the thick bible, all the guests who have died in the 25 years are listed: a good hundred in the meantime.

In the meantime, the television is on in the Notel. In addition a coworker wrote a few transmissions on the blackboard. The Champions League doesn't stand a chance today, instead an animal documentary makes the running. At 22.45 o'clock is basically closing time in the accommodation. But by then, most of the residents have already disappeared into the three- and four-bed rooms. Alex, Amir, Michael and Martin enjoy the night's rest at the Notel. Tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. they have to leave the emergency sleeping center again. Strengthened with breakfast, freshly washed clothes and some human warmth against the cold of the street.

There are several events to celebrate the Notel's anniversary

On Wednesday (4. February) takes place at 18.00 o'clock in the Domforum a concert with Rolly Brings and Band takes place, with Brings also reading the Gospel in Kolsch. Also at the Cathedral Forum on Thursday (5. February) at 17.00 a.m. in a round table discussion on the topic “To each his addiction. Between heroin and gummy bears”. On Saturday (7. February) at 11.00 o'clock in the church Sankt Maria in Lyskirchen a thanksgiving service for 25 years “Notel” celebrated. From 13.00 to 17.00 o'clock the “Notel” invites to the open day.


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