Berliners on the breadline

While you sit around drinking Sternis in Görlitzer Park on these warm summer evenings, some people could actually be there to work. Exberliner investigates the lived realities behind poor-but-not-sexy, which are closer to yours than you think.

Image for Berliners on the breadline
Photo by Nele Obermueller

There’s nothing “aber sexy” about Berlin’s increasing social segregation. As rents rise, is Hartz-IV behind the times?

“In summertime, living gets easier,” Eddy (photo) says, unintentionally paraphrasing George Gershwin as he squints out into the sun. He’s thinking of the crowds of people who relax, picnic and drink in Berlin’s parks on warm weekends, but he won’t be joining them – he’ll be picking up their cast-off bottles. A full park means a busy day for the small Filipino with the easy smile and broken German, one of Berlin’s many Pfand (bottle deposit) collectors. When the day is over, he’ll sleep outside, most likely in that same park.

A population apart

Berlin is “poor but sexy”. Just ask the faux- hemian expats who come to town for cheap apartments and low-cost fun. But there’s a difference between slumming, Sterni-swilling New York transplants and those who can no longer afford to live in their own homes, a divide that will only grow as rents continue to rise.

Approximately 600,000 Berliners receive Hartz-IV welfare benefits – that’s 21 percent of the population. For these people, even a small increase in living costs can mean the difference between scraping by and hitting bottom. In 2011, more than 100,000 Hartz-IV households’ rents surpassed the limits set by the state support system. As a consequence, 1300 families were displaced (up from 1200 in 2010, according to the Berlin-Brandenburg trade union federation), forced to leave their home Kiez for Plattenbau no-man’s lands like Marzahn-Hellersdorf or Lichtenberg. Hartz-IV recipients are portrayed as ever-moaning slackers glued to their flat- screen TVs, but individual stories show that economic downgrades can happen to anyone.

“I have to drink every night now.”

“I can always depend on my bottles,” Eddy says. Along with over a thousand other Berliners, he uses Germany’s Pfand system, implemented in 2003, as a source of income. Twenty-five cents for plastic bottles and eight cents for glass might not seem like much, but for Eddy, it adds up to around €350 every month. He began collecting bottles six years ago to supplement his family’s income – his wife’s job paid well, but he was eager to contribute to the household any way he could. Three weeks ago, however, his wife kicked him out of their Friedrichshain apartment, leaving him without a home. “It was so sudden – she just changed locks on me,” Eddy mumbles, looking down uncomfortably. At first he refuses to say more, but eventually his burden spills out: Eddy had suspected his wife of being unfaithful, leading to a drunken altercation involving a knife. It’s a shocking story coming from this good-natured man. “I would never hurt her. I was just trying to show her how upset I was. That I’d kill any man she had an affair with before losing her!” Since that night, his wife won’t let him see their five-year-old daughter unsupervised. Eddie is sure things will get better once he finds somewhere to live. “But I’ve been turned down from so many places I applied to – I think because of my income.”

He finally found a job at a dental laboratory in January paying €700 per month, but because he can’t list his Pfand money on the paperwork, he hasn’t been able to secure a flat in now-pricey Friedrichshain. His hopes are pegged on finding a place in cheaper Marzahn. Until then, Eddy will remain one of Berlin’s 7000 homeless. He does his best to stay busy. “Being bored isn’t good, especially when you’re hungry,” he says. Like his finances, Eddy’s distraction often comes in bottle form. “I have to drink every night now. You can’t sleep outside without drinking.” There are rare bright moments: every so often, a club owner will let him in to dance when he comes by to collect bottles. But if Eddy doesn’t find a place before long, he’ll have to deal with the chilly reality of winter homelessness. Last year, despite Berlin’s emergency shelter system, one person died from the cold.

“It’s harder to climb back up once you know the bottom.”

Marco Dressler, a fast-talking 29-year-old from Hamburg, never thought he would find himself scrounging for bottles on the street. “I’m still used to having money in my pockets, like other people do.” Marco lost his well-paying advertising job in 2008 after suffering a burnout. Now, he receives a Hartz-IV benefit of €374 per month in addition to a €394 housing allowance. No longer able to afford his three-room flat, he moved into a studio in Friedrichshain. “It was hard for me to adjust,” Marco says as he pulls out a carefully preserved half-cigarette.

He learned to search for discounts at Kaufland supermarkets, shopped for trainers on eBay instead of Foot Locker and started Pfand collecting. “The first time was really tough. All of a sudden I was on the other side … I was so afraid someone I know would see me.” That was over a year ago, when Marco had to choose between gathering bottles and stealing. Ashamed, he had waited until nightfall, letting people pass before making his move. To overcome some of that stigma he joined pfandgeben.de, a web-based bottle collection service created in July 2011. He now gets about four calls a month from people looking to dispose of their recyclable goods. “I still have an aversion every time, but at least with pfandgeben.de everyone knows what you’re there for and it’s not out in public.”

As a young single man in Berlin, Marco misses the spontaneity and flexibility that money provides. After he has paid for food and bills, Marco is left with around €60 per month, which he must budget scrupulously. “Buying a coffee just because you feel like it, is too expensive now. I have to carefully plan and inform myself to get by.” Hartz-IV does provide some perks for recipients, such as free museum entry, but Marco wishes the programme covered activities like sports. “What we get … is out of sync with the times. It’s not interesting to the many young people who are poor now.” Marco begins digital media design training at the end of June. He is looking for part-time work, but it’s been nearly impossible to find. The economic stress of Hartz-IV living drives Marco’s commitment to changing his circumstances. Yet he worries that he has trapped himself in a vicious cycle. “It shifts your inhibitions. And I think it’s harder to climb back up once you know the bottom.”

“They want you to leave the system as quickly as possible.”

Mimi is a young, married mother of three. She and her husband have been on Hartz-IV for two years. Although Mimi prefers her last name to remain anonymous, she believes there should be no shame associated with receiving state support. “Jobcenter staff treat you like you’re just part of this bland mass,” she says. “But we’re all individual people with unique life stories.” Her sharp lilac eyes periodically flick back to her children playing happily. Mimi’s father was a workaholic whose absence at home contributed to her parents’ eventual divorce. Being present for her own children was therefore a priority for Mimi, even though it meant interrupting her university degree. After her husband lost his job at a call centre, relying on Hartz-IV became the family’s only option.

Mimi says that even tough times can lead to beneficial developments. “My husband was never happy in that call centre. His being made redundant ultimately forced us to appreciate each other more as a family.” But living on Hartz-IV hasn’t been easy. “They want you to leave the system as quickly as possible, so they purposefully make it uncomfortable.” Even simple steps – such as receiving a state-funded education package (Bildungspaket) covering school materials and excursions for her sons, ages four and six – are a struggle. Finding affordable housing has proven the greatest challenge of all. Mimi’s five-member family receives €705 in rent assistance, a sum calculated using city rates and household size. When the rent of their apartment on the border between Mitte and Wedding rose, Hartz-IV would not cover the difference, and the family was forced to move out. “At first I thought it would be impossible to find anything on the budget we’re given for rent. For eight weeks all we did was look and apply, with the Jobcenter criticising us for not having found a place sooner.”

In the end, the housing company Degewo helped the family find an inexpensive, spacious flat in deep Wedding. “It works for me to be poor now because I can make ends meet,” Mimi says, feeding her one-year-old daughter a piece of bread. “But it’s draining too.” Mimi economises by sewing her own clothes, buying food from a co-op and taking her children to flea markets as a treat. “The reason I can bear this stress is because I feel confident things will change.” Soon, she will go back to university. “We feel better knowing we’re educating ourselves. I can imagine many people don’t see how to change their situation though, and the system doesn’t make it easy for you.”

The high cost of displacement

In April, confronted with escalating displacement cases, Berlin’s senate increased Hartz-IV rent subsidies by €16 per month for a single person and €46 per month for a four-member household. But is this really enough? Several politicians have already said the increase will do little to curb the growing physical separation of the economically underprivileged. Marco agrees. “Mixture is what makes cities thrive. How terrible would it be if Berlin turned into something like Paris?” More often than not, physical segregation is coupled with social stagnation. The lower one falls, the greater the threat of isolation. “Out here on the streets, you don’t make friends,” Eddy says. When times are tough, even mutual caring becomes an unattainable luxury.