A home for the night

Over 7000 people are homeless in Berlin, but there are a lot more without a proper home to go to on a cold winter night. We met some of them at one of the busiest homeless shelters in town. EXTRA: How you can (easily) help out the shelter.

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Photo by Peronimo (CC BY 2.0)

Over 7000 people are homeless in Berlin or a proper bed to go to on a cold winter night. We met some of them at one of the busiest homeless shelters in town. (See bottom of article for how to help out the Berliner Stadtmission.)

It’s not yet 8pm and some 40 people, mostly men, are already queuing outside the Berliner Stadtmission on Lehrter Straße. The wintertime homeless shelter is located in the basement of the Protestant community’s main building, a few minutes’ walk from Hauptbahnhof, and before turning the corner you can already hear the raucous crowd. A couple of Polish guys are shouting “Kurwa, kurwa” (whore) at each other. There’s still an hour to go until they start letting them in, and it’s getting chilly – the prediction is -4 degrees for the night. The air is filled with the smell of cheap alcohol, and one of the Poles throws an open plastic bottle into the bushes. A fight is about to start, but the security guard, one of several employed by the shelter, separates them. Eventually, they settle. They can get in, just like everyone else. Here they don’t ask for ID or ask you any questions. Everyone’s welcome, even dogs. On some nights up to 250 people come here for a meal and a warm place to sleep.

It’s just a small fraction of Berlin’s homeless community, which has been exponentially growing over the past few years: an estimated 7000 as of 2015, twice as much as in 2014 and probably much larger by now. A further 3000-6000 people do not have a permanent home and sometimes end up in one of the shelters when no friends can offer them a bed or a sofa. And this doesn’t account for the many foreigners who have never been counted as “homeless” through medical or welfare services.

“ About 20-30 percent of our guests are German. It’s mostly eastern Europeans, from Romania, Poland, Bulgaria…” explains one of the evening coordinators, Lydia. We are standing inside by now, watching as every person coming through the door is being searched by her fellow coordinator, Stefan, and a small team of volunteers. Jackets off , arms up. No alcohol, no drugs, no weapons of any kind – the rules are strict. They will get everything back upon leaving, illegal or not: the shelter doesn’t have the right to take it away.

In the large dining room, the low ceilings makes one feel a little uneasy. As the space fills up, the smell of warm food mixes with that of unwashed clothes and people, urine and alcohol-tinged sweat. A huge variety of people sit at the tables. Some can hardly talk or stand in front of the food station, and it’s easy to tell that they haven’t had a home in a while, that they are fighting addiction or mental health issues. But others might as well be your neighbour ready for a night out, after a good shower. Leather jackets, expensive headphones, nice winter boots. So what are they doing here? “I have a job, I work on construction sites,” confirms a tall young man with a Romanian accent who says he’s been in Germany for nine years. “I lived with my girlfriend until four days ago but she threw me out and I had nowhere to go, so now I sleep here. It’s just temporary.” Tudor* leaves the shelter every morning to go to work and comes back at night. “It’s not easy. It’s always so loud here, and it gets so smelly in the rooms! Plus some people here are really dirty and sick – I don’t want to get some sort of illness or lice.” Shelter employees confirm that many people in need choose to avoid shelters because of the smell and the noise. Cases of theft and violent behaviour are also a deterrent. “I am Romanian but I am not a gypsy, like those!” Tudor says in approximate but fluent German, disparagingly pointing at a small group of Roma who just got in. Tudor says he intends to find a proper home soon… well before the shelter closes its doors on March 31.

My girlfriend threw me out and I had nowhere to go, so now I sleep here. It’s just temporary.

In the meantime he, like all the other guests, will be treated to warm food and salad, tea, a rollmat to sleep, shower facilities, basic clothing and medical and psychological help. The shelter offers proper sleeping facilities for 121 people, but often accommodates more than twice that number. Some sleep in the dining room, on benches or simply on the floor. Every night at around 11pm, the staff takes a few minutes to sing and read a short passage of the Bible, a ritual met with sneers and annoyance by some turbulent guests. Meanwhile, those who are ready to go to bed sit on a bench near the entrance. Once five or six people are there, one of the staff members walks them over to the sleeping buildings, which operate as a youth hostel during the summer. “I also have a home! But Bigfoot came tonight. He is huge! You know what Bigfoot is? A yeti! He is at least three metres. He is in my house now. So I just came to eat and rest a little. Then I’m going back home to Neukölln,” says an older man with a big smile on his face, taking another slice of bread from the counter.

Jörg, a short man in his fifties with a dry sense of humour, has been working here at the mission for eight years. “I’ve seen people die, I’ve seen people make it, and I’ve seen them slip back again. There are faces that keep coming back every day, year after year… you get to know them. The ones who come from eastern Europe can’t get much help from the government. They come to Germany with the hope of a better life, and they’re too ashamed to go back home when they fail,” he says.

It’s not only eastern Europeans who come. A handsome fiftysomething Brazilian man arrives after midnight. In flawless German he says he used to be an artist “before this” but won’t give any further details. He takes only one piece of cake, saying he doesn’t want to gain weight. A young, clean and well-dressed guy from Gambia sits alone in the corner. He’s only been here for a few days. He worked as a carpenter in Freiburg and explains that the man who promised him a job in Berlin vanished and he knows no one else, has no money. But he smiles: “It’s an experience. You see all these funny, weird people!” A frightened-looking lady with a Russian accent wanted to get away from her husband. A German man explains to his friend, or “colleague” as they call each other, how all of his papers and money got stolen recently and how things have been getting worse and worse since his wife died. An Italian man reeking of cologne brags about all the parties he’s been having, then asks for some more food from the man behind the counter.

“ Two years ago I was sitting at one of these tables,” begins another volunteer, Carsten, cheerfully embracing the surprised looks of the people nearby. A cook in Hamburg, he used to live right above the restaurant he worked at. But when his boss sold the business, the owner didn’t keep him. “From one day to the next, I lost my job and my flat. I got by for a while but couldn’t find work, so I came to Berlin to try my luck but ended up on the street. And I’d come here every night they opened. I talked to the staff for advice and within six months, they helped me to get a room and a job!” Today back on the employment track as a cook in a small family hotel in Potsdam, he’s eager to give back to the community that helped him and volunteers here a couple of times a week. “I know how it is on both sides. And I know how easy it is to end up on that side… The longer you’re on the streets, the harder it is to return. I was lucky.”

In the background, the Romanian boys keep on trying to flirt with all the women on staff, calling them “princessa”, but a loud trio interrupts them: those Polish men from earlier. They all have bloodshot and black eyes from previous fights, they’re a bit pushy as they ask for food – “Essen! Essen! Vodka?” – and all three are clearly high. The staff handles them firmly but kindly, even when they start jumping at each other’s throats again a little later. Twenty-year-old Lydia fearlessly steps in between them, and seconds later a security man stands next to her. The boys calm down again, and soon they all go off to sleep.

They’ll all be woken up at 6am for breakfast and coffee. By 8am they’ll have to leave, back into the harsh reality of the morning frost. Some go to work, some try to get enough money for a drink or drugs… and in 12 hours most of them will be queuing up again on the stairs of the shelter.

*Names changed.

The Berliner Stadtmission

Started in 1877 as the charitable branch of Berlin’s Protestant community, the Berliner Stadtmission operates three shelters including the one on Lehrter Straße, which has served as a winter refuge for homeless Berliners since 2001. The organisation also runs two minivans, or “Kältebusse”, which carry food, hot tea, blankets and sleeping bags and drive people to the shelters if they agree to come. The food at the shelters and in the vans, around 600 portions per day, is cooked from donated ingredients, always with a meatless version for vegetarians. Feeling generous and the need to help this season? Berliner Stadtmission accepts donations. Pitch in by clicking here.