Homeless people in berlin: encounters at eye level

Self-organized and independent, the cold shelter in the Mehringhof works. Volunteers are still needed for the coming winter season.

More and more homeless people live on Berlin’s streets Photo: dpa

Deportations, task forces, buses to Eastern Europe: even before the cold season has begun, there is an excited discussion about homeless people in Berlin. One thing is clear: there are too few places for homeless people to stay overnight. Shelters that are open all year round can accommodate only 125 people. In recent winters, there have been around 700 places in the various facilities run by Kaltehilfe, but even that is at least 100 too few, according to the organization. And this is despite the fact that many of the up to ten thousand homeless people living in Berlin – there are no exact figures – prefer a place on the street to emergency accommodation.

Because emergency shelters are often not particularly nice places – overcrowded, aggressive atmosphere, little privacy. The makers of Kalteschutz in Kreuzberg’s Mehringhof, a self-organized, independent initiative for homeless people in winter that has existed since 1996, also know this. Once a week, on Thursday night, the initiative provides around 25 places to sleep, as well as dinner, breakfast and the opportunity to wash up. "The most important thing is that we try to create a respectful atmosphere and take people seriously in their self-determination," says Elena, who is active in the initiative.

Around 30 volunteers are currently involved. The initiative works in three shifts per night, there are always several people there at the same time – also so that no one is left alone with difficult situations. "It’s mostly quiet and pleasant with us, but can there be a problem sometimes," says Elena. The cold shelter in the Mehringhof accepts everyone; alcohol, drugs and violence are forbidden. Those who want to talk about themselves will find people who will listen to them – those who don’t want to reveal anything about themselves are not forced to do so.

Many of the visitors are regulars who come back every Thursday, says Elena. Some of them know more than most of the volunteers because they’ve been coming longer than they’ve been active – another indication of how hard it is to get out of homelessness.

Most guests hear about the offer through word-of-mouth, and the cold bus also brings people by. So far, there have not been more crowds than places at the cold shelter. Elena says she cannot confirm that the so-called refugee crisis has exacerbated the situation. The 31-year-old musician has been active in cold weather protection for three years. "It’s a job that gives you a lot in return," she says. The hardest thing to bear, she says, is not being able to offer people much more than a place to sleep, food and a sympathetic ear. "We can’t do much about the housing shortage in Berlin and the difficulties homeless people face," she says.

The doors of the cold shelter open this year on October 26, from then on there will be the offer every Thursday. Volunteers are still urgently needed. Previous experience is not necessary – just the desire to meet homeless people at eye level.

Info event for those interested: Thursday, 19.10., 7 p.m., in the Mehringhof (Gneisenaustrabe 2a, second backyard).

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