Why doesn't the President help the homeless

Homelessness in Berlin
Dieter returns to the Zoo station

There are around 30,000 homeless people in Berlin, a third of whom live on the streets. The Querstadtein project enables us to experience the city from its perspective.

“Do you know what to do if you want to go to jail? No? Get caught driving fare dodging eight times. The eighth time it is an offense, punishable by three months in prison. The prison is warm, which is very important for the homeless in winter, and you can have a doctor examine you. Especially when you have frozen limbs that have to be treated or amputated, ”says Dieter, a 49-year-old beard with a leather jacket and sunglasses who is surrounded by a group of young girls.

“You can also make money in prison. Nobody wants to employ a homeless man outside, but you can work in prison if you want to. If you are released after three months, you will have eight or nine hundred euros in your pocket. "

Dieter leads the girls through the Bahnhof Zoo - the place where he himself spent the first few weeks as a homeless person. Today he has a roof over his head again and earns something as a city guide. “Homeless people show their Berlin” is the name of his tour. For 13 euros (reduced 8.50 euros) you can find out what everyday life is like for people who live on the streets in Berlin.

The milk drinker

The Zoologischer Garten station hardly reminds of the place Christiane F. once said in her book We children from Bahnhof Zoo described. It looks like most other Berlin train stations. It smells of China pan and McDonalds, the travelers are impatiently waiting for their delayed regional train. Only at second glance do you notice that a large number of people are not here to travel.

"Did you see the ventilation grille next to the entrance?" Asks Dieter. The girls shake their heads. “There are always some homeless people sitting there, especially in winter. Almost twenty hours a day, warm air flows up from the subway shaft. The guards came by here every four hours and drove us away. I do not know why either. But I know why the President of the District Court "- Dieter points with his hand to the pompous building on the other side of the street -" has forbidden us to stay on the sidewalk. Because, as he said himself, he did not want to confront his employees with poverty during the coffee break. "

Dieter podczas wycieczki w ramach projektu “Querstadtein” | Photo: Kaja Puto Dieter is accompanied by Dominika, the project manager of the Stadtsichten association, who initiated the “Querstadtein” project. The first city tours with homeless people took place in 2013, and tours with refugees have also been offered since 2016.
"We meet homeless people on our way to work or school every day, but we don't have the opportunity to talk to them - with them and not just about them," explains Dominika. “The tours are led by people who have experienced discrimination and have lived on the margins of society. The Querstadtein project gives them the opportunity to tell their own personal stories and show a different face of Berlin. "
Tourists, politicians and employees of non-governmental organizations take part in the tours. Or - like today - school classes. The girls who listen to Dieter's stories have come to Berlin from Brussels, together with their German teacher.
“I became homeless in 2012 and lived on the street for two and a half months,” recalls Dieter. “Of the members of my group - because homeless people often form groups for security reasons - only two are left today. In my group there were men and women, all from Eastern Europe. Three died of alcohol, one of methamphetamine, one froze to death at a bus stop and one disappeared without a trace. Besides me, only Boris, our "bodyguard," a two-meter man and former boxer, is still alive today. He's thirty-five years old today, but he looks seventy, of course because of the alcohol. "
“According to official information, there are 860,000 homeless people in Germany. In reality there are more and it is difficult to estimate their exact number, ”says Dominika. "A large number of them live in appropriate facilities, with friends or relatives, but around 52,000 people live on the streets - around 10,000 in Berlin alone."
“And do you know why people end up on the street? Who knows, please raise your hand. Right, because they have no money, because they got into debt, because they don't have a family to help them. And why still? Because they can't find work, that's the reason. Then there are alcohol, drugs and mental problems. "
"Above all, it is addiction that makes it difficult to get out of homelessness," explains Dieter.
“I didn't drink or smoke weed, just drank milk all the time, which is why everyone just called me“ milk drinker ”. I tried LSD once, but I was young then. If you hold out to the end, I'll be happy to tell you about it. "

The professor

“Opposite the train station is an Ullrich-Markt, the favorite shop of the homeless. There are four times as many cameras there as in normal stores, but hunger makes people inventive. Igor from our group was missing his left arm, so he sewed special pockets in the left sleeve in which he hid his "purchases". Don't get me wrong ", Dieter turns to the insecure girl with a big grin," I don't want to say that theft is a good thing. But we homeless romanticize it: We see ourselves as modern Robin Hoods who take the rich to give to the poor. "
“Behind the train station, where you can see the long line, there is a Caritas ambulance. There you can get a medical check-up and receive free medication, ”says Dieter with many gestures, but without approaching the queue.
“We don't want to push ourselves into the lives of the homeless,” says Dominika. “Our city guides are people who have managed to get out of homelessness and who tell their own story. They can share their experiences with others and show them that it is worth giving the homeless a chance. "

Dieter on a Querstadtein tour | Photo: Kaja Puto Only at the very end of the tour do the girls dare to ask Dieter about the causes of his homelessness. Guilt was a chain of unfortunate circumstances. In 2011, when it all began, Dieter was unemployed (he had previously had various jobs, including as a paver and in a sex shop). Then his landlady canceled the lease. Actually he would have had twelve months to look around for an apartment, but the owner was in a hurry, so she cut him off the electricity and gas and broke new windows in the walls, although Dieter continued to pay his rent on time.
“As a result, I got pneumonia and ended up in the hospital. I couldn't find another apartment because nobody wants to rent to social welfare recipients. I would have had to wait for a social apartment in my old apartment, but that was not possible. "
Dieter only had two hundred euros in his pocket and no one to help him. He had lost his wife and mother a few years earlier. He made his way to Leipzig (on foot and by hitchhiking) and finally to Berlin. He lived on the street for two and a half months, then made it into a homeless project. Today he lives in a rented apartment, receives social assistance, has paid off his debts, works as a city guide and helps out in a homeless area.
“It is not easy to find new city guides. Mainly because people find it difficult to report on their experiences. Besides Dieter, we have two other homeless people and nine refugees in the other project. In the near future, we want to include city tours with blind people in our program, ”says Dominika.

Dieter podczas wycieczki w ramach projektu “Querstadtein” | Photo: Kaja Puto The walk ends at Savignyplatz, a green, well-tended space next to a railway underpass.

“We called this place a“ luxury place ”because the benches here are covered with pergolas that protect against wind, rain and snow. They are also very long, "explains Dieter," so you can stretch out on them. The worst thing about being a homeless person is that your muscles ache from sitting around and sleeping on the cold street for so long. "

Is Berlin a homeless-friendly city?

“Definitely yes,” says Dieter. “Berliners are naturally open and tolerant. In addition, the homeless can count on government assistance here: free meals, medical assistance and sleeping places. I love this city and its rhythm and I like the people here. You're a little crazy, beyond the norm. Just like me."

After the almost two-hour walk in the cold March air, the girls are exhausted and frozen through. Dieter makes fun of them and shows them that he is only wearing a short-sleeved shirt under his leather jacket. At the end he tells a few more anecdotes, tries to overcome the distance. Then he hands out buttons with the project logo to the girls and says goodbye to them warmly.

When I accompany Dieter and Dominika to the S-Bahn station, Dieter speaks to me about the political situation in Poland. He says he recently read a disturbing report about freedom of the press there.


Dieter's story is an optimistic success story, just right to shake up the conscience of school classes. But there are not many of these stories: It is extremely difficult to get out of homelessness, even in a welfare state like Germany. The everyday life of the homeless is far more cruel than Dieter's frank but faded anecdotes suggest.
"It is fitting that the homeless people are around the Bahnhof Zoo, after all, they behave like animals themselves," says Maciek, who is around 20 years old, and whom I meet in a square a few streets away. He comes from Poland and has been living on the streets in Berlin for six months. He is slender and of small, slightly stooped stature. He stutters. He asks me to call him Maciek, because his real name is rather rare. His greatest fear is that his family might find out about his homelessness.
“The everyday life of the homeless is a constant struggle for survival, for food, for money, for alcohol. Lately the Poles have been at the forefront, they are behaving so aggressively that it is said to have even been reported in the newspapers. "
It is difficult to say how many of Berlin's homeless people come from Eastern Europe: many Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians do not even appear in the statistics due to the abolition of border controls. According to homeless workers, their share is up to thirty percent. Most of them come from Poland - if only because of the geographical proximity to Berlin.
“Here I meet Poles who were homeless in their homeland too. For example, you come to Berlin to spend the winter here because there are not enough sleeping quarters in Poland. It's easier to get warm clothes or a free meal here, ”explains Maya, a volunteer who works a lot with Poles because of her knowledge of Polish. “But there are also many who came to Germany to work here and were then ripped off: They lost their jobs or it turned out that there was no work for them at all. They are ashamed to return to their families, so they live on the streets. "

Dieter podczas wycieczki w ramach projektu “Querstadtein” | Photo: Kaja PutoMaciek belongs to the latter group. An acquaintance persuaded him to work on a Berlin construction site, but after a few weeks he snatched Maciek's wages and made sure that he was dismissed. He fell out with his family, who live in eastern Poland, and has nothing to return to. His parents think he can do just fine here.

Maciek's everyday life in Berlin looks something like what Dieter describes: he queues for food and medication, then he goes in search of a public toilet from which he cannot be chased. He doesn't wash his clothes because he can get new ones at any time. He seldom begs - people are reluctant to give anything to a young, healthy man.

“It's hard for me to explain to them that I look for work every day, but hardly anyone wants to employ a homeless person. Besides, I don't understand German, so I don't even know what they're throwing at me. Sometimes you can work illegally - but in a city like Berlin, where there are a lot of homeless people, the competition is correspondingly high. If nothing else arises, I collect bottles and live on the deposit. Some homeless people fight to the death for the bottles. And about alcohol. "

Maciek can only dream of renting an apartment, even if he somehow could raise the money for it. Berlin has a big housing problem that doesn't just affect the homeless. If you want to rent an apartment at a reasonable price, you have to present all kinds of documents to the landlord: from the debt-free certificate to proof of income (for example, three times the monthly rent). The tourist development, in particular the trend towards short-term rental of apartments, has exacerbated the situation in the city, which has been overpopulated for years.

Homeless people from Eastern Europe, of whom there are more in Berlin every year, have an even harder time than Germans - at least if they have not worked legally in Germany for a while. You are not entitled to social assistance, social housing, homeless projects, etc.

“But there is still a lot of support, so people stay here once they land on the street,” explains Maciek. “There is always a place in Berlin where you can sleep or get something to eat, even in the hospital they will take you in if you get seriously ill. You can collect bottle deposits or look for some work. Two-course meals and chic clothes can be found in garbage cans. And the police don't worry if you have a beer in the park. I have spoken to many who say that they were worse off in Poland than here. Even those with jobs and a roof over their heads. It is certainly different when you have something to return to. Most of them don't have it or don't want it. "

"In addition to the significant increase in the number of homeless people from Eastern Europe, it can also be observed that homelessness is not just, as most believe, a problem for single men," says Maya. “I see more and more homeless women and even entire families. There are also more and more disabled people, even if some only pretend to be sorry. The German state takes care of its citizens, it guarantees them an apartment if they get into trouble, but whoever has fallen out of the bureaucratic system, for whatever reason, has a hard time getting back into it. In most cases, debt is the cause. "

During our walk I tell Maciek about Dieter. What does he think of that? Can such projects change people's attitudes towards the homeless?

Maciek shrugs his shoulders and laughs bitterly.

"If that means that people no longer look at us with disdain, then of course that is a good thing," he says finally. “But honestly, the first thing you learn to deal with is contempt when you live on the street. At some point it will be completely normal for you. "


Kaja Puto - journalist, editor, translator and social activist. She is interested in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and the topics of migration and Europe. She writes for the online magazine “Dziennik Opinii”, the daily newspaper “Gazeta Wyborcza”, the magazines “Nowa Europa Wschodnia” and “Polityka” as well as the portal “Eastbook”. Studied cultural studies and philosophy in Krakow, Berlin and Tbilisi. Scholarship holder of the DAAD, the Erasmus Mundus program, the SdpZ and the GFPS. Expert in the research project "Literatura polska po 1989 w świetle teorii Pierre'a Bourdieu".Editor of the publishing series “Czyli nigdzie” and deputy chairwoman of the publishing house Korporacja Ha! Art.

Translation: Heinz Rosenau
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Poland
May 2018

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