By Mara Noto
Proofread by William Stupp
“Do you feel it?” asks Jane, noting the boat’s rocking pattern. “You get used to it. At first it was strange, but then you don’t really notice it anymore.” Jane is a group worker of the Salvation Army (Leger des Heils). Nowadays she works full-time on a new, water-bound refuge.
It is an unusual hostel for the homeless: a river cruise ship, one of many which, before the pandemic sailed the waters of the Rhine. Now, with the homeless in need of housing and the MS Allegro lacking any senior guests to fill its bunks, the ship took on a social role by giving a temporary home to many. At the Boompjes pier, directly on the Meuse, it offers a breathtaking view of the Erasmus Bridge, adorned with lights and Christmas decorations.
The 75 residents (lucky compared to the others who lack four walls to shelter them from the cold) are close to being assigned a social house. Unfortunately, the new refuge, says Jane, has a limited capacity. “I would like to open the doors of MS Allegro to everyone, but there are rules to follow. And unfortunately not everyone has the right.” The MS Allegro residents have been given an access pass by local authorities, a privilege reserved for few.
“We have other shelters around the city, about 6/7 with dormitories.” Among the many requirements to access the MS Allegro, one must have lived in the city of Rotterdam for at least 2 years. Furthermore, it is necessary to prove that you cannot provide for your livelihood.
“There are people of all kinds, there are those who have just divorced and are left without a home; there are those who have lost everything due to too much debt, just as there are those who are trying to manage addictions to drugs or alcohol,” says Gert-Jan Freeke, regional director of the Salvation Army.
The MS Allegro, offers rooms equipped with bed, desk, TV and private bathroom. Each pays thematic homage to a different locations across the world, from Düsseldorf to India. These rooms will be home to 75 needy people until next summer. “I’ve been here for two months, I finally have my space and I can rest properly. I have a lot more energy in doing things. Before I was in another refuge, which was not bad but this is the crème de la crème!” says Jo, a resident.
In addition to the single rooms, there is the restaurant room, where guests can entertain themselves and enjoy hot meals. “We have two shifts for meals, in order to keep the 1.5m distance dictated by the anti-covid measures as much as possible,” explains Jane as she shows us the dining room where breakfast is being served.
In the kitchen sits Elvan, born in Turkey. Ready to take out breakfast, he tells us with a smile that he has been there for 6 months and that he mainly takes care of the cooking and serving the meals. “The kitchen is taken care of by the people who live here. We try to give them the space to do things and have responsibilities. Obviously, if necessary, we, as social workers and volunteers also help,” affirms Jane.
The refuge-boat accommodates only men: initially, the ship was mixed but mostly male. It was decided to open another women’s-only shelter in Coolhaven. “The first time I came aboard I thought it was a Love Boat, but I was at the wrong address,” jokes one of the residents.