Welcome to Berlin – but good luck finding a place to live

GSBTB Open Kitchen Manager Ricarda Bochat and Communications Assistant Abeera Atif write about homelessness in Berlin, its inherent ties to the grueling housing market and what you can do about it.


A homeless man sits on the steps of the entrance to the steel chamber in 1931. Source: Bundesarchiv.

The situation

Underneath the veneer of Berlin’s bustling nightlife, multicultural populace, colorful street art – or any other reason why you decided to move here – lies a growing problem of homelessness, leading many to enter into a vicious cycle of despair, forcing them out on the streets.

But what exactly does ‘homeless’ mean? A homeless person is defined as someone who doesn’t have an address or a fixed roof above their head, additionally including many people living in temporary accommodation, such as shelters.

Trying to quantify the problem is difficult, as the government does not compile any official statistics regarding homelessness. Some organisations have taken the lead on this, however: according to the BAG Wohnungslosenhilfe e.V, (an organisation committed to providing facilities to homeless people) in 2016 around 860,000 people in Germany were without residence – a whopping 150% increase from 2014. Since 2016, recognised refugees without residence are included in these numbers, amounting to around 440,00 of the 860,000, or approximately half. The organisation has also estimated that by 2018 these figures could hike up as far as 1.2 million – a grim prospect for a country which already struggles with inadequate policymaking to address the current problem.

Contrary to what the numbers presented by BAGW suggest, although increased migration has intensified growing homelessness, the problem cannot simply be attributed to migration itself. According to BAGW founder Thomas Sprecht, constant housing shortages and the lack of affordable social housing, juxtaposed with an influx of private investors buying up housing stocks and a government whose responses to growing poverty remain inadequate and lacklustre make the situation even more dire. For all of us who live in Berlin, this is all too real: which one of us doesn’t know a friend who moved six times in one year or who’s had to spend a couple of weeks on a couch because they couldn’t find a flat that didn’t cost an arm and a leg? This trend is bound to continue – apartment rents in Berlin have risen by 76% since 2008.


Tents belonging to homeless people in an underpass near the Spree. Source: user Spielvogel on Wikimedia Commons.

Members of GSBTB’s own community are no strangers to the never-ending search for a flat in Berlin’s brutal housing market. Saad*, a community member from Syria, recounts the months he spent homeless: sending a hundred emails to flat renters and receiving about ten replies, sleeping in parks and hostels – and, in some instances, even going on dates just so he would have a roof over his head for a night. “Prices are so inflated here, nobody wants money from the Jobcenter. Others don’t want anyone over 30, and some would prefer a German, American or a European, so I barely stood a chance,” says Saad. “On top of everything else, [looking for a flat] made my depression run wild. It honestly made me hate the city.”

This is perhaps best documented in a study conducted by SPIEGEL Online in cooperation with the Bayerischer Rundfunk, where they found that applicants with foreign names stood to be contacted significantly less than their German counterparts. Particularly at-risk were men with Turkish and Arabic names.

Who’s tackling the problem?

The question then arises: who are the key players and who is on-the-ground to combat these issues? Berlin hosts a variety of civil society actors who focus on different aspects of volunteering with homeless people. Here are just a few of them who you can support as a volunteer:

Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe e.V.

People living on the streets need a lot of strength to survive – but, due to the constant struggle, the body can run out of resources easily, especially in the winter when temperatures drop.

BOH organises tours that deliver basic necessities – including warm food, clothing, basic hygiene supplies and first aid kits – to four different locations all over Berlin. These tours provide vulnerable people with a much-needed break from their daily struggles, a safe space to meet and talk to people, and also serve as a vital source of information on doctors, emergency shelters, soup kitchens, rehab and psychiatric facilities, as well as other resources. Taking place every Wednesday, Saturday and (in a different format) on Sunday, you can join the team at any point during the day, whether that’s to help with the cooking, loading up the van or  distributing warm food and clothes at one of the four stations. To see which items you can find at home to donate, or how to donate money, check their Bedarfsliste.


GSBTB Open Kitchen at the Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe. Source: Jess Haverkamp. 

GSBTB’s Open Kitchen project has been officially involved with BOH for a year, organising a monthly cooking session on the last Friday of every month at one of the BOH soup kitchens. For more details on how to join us, and to keep up-to-date with events, check Open Kitchen’s Facebook page.

Sometimes the most important thing is to simply be there and show these people that they are valued. We all run into difficult times now and then – it’s important to remind each other that we are not alone in this experience.

Schlafplatzorga

Schalfplatzorga (“sleeping place organisation” in English) attempts to organise temporary shelters for Berlin’s homeless population (as well as illegal immigrants in Berlin). Their ethos revolves around solidarity – a dedication to defeating institutional and systemic racism, especially with regards to bureaucratic migration and asylum practices – but with a recognition that these efforts often require the people involved in them to have their own personal space, a basic need that many people often take for granted. Schlafplatzorga therefore aims to coordinate and connect homeless (and sometimes undocumented) refugees with potential locals, expats or migrants who have accommodation to spare. If you or someone you know has a spare room in their WG, that classic IKEA pull-out couch or any free space, then Schlafplatzorga is the organisation to contact (you can find a short FAQ on how to offer a place to sleep here).

You can also join the group as an active member – just head to Oranienstrasse 159 from 6 – 8 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The members of Schlafplatzorga are ready to meet you during their shifts, where they provide support and consultations for people searching for flats.

There are also other ways to get involved, like spreading the word about the organisation’s work. This could involve handing out flyers or stickers, or telling your friends (and asking them to tell their friends, and so on…).

There’s also a regular Soli Dinner that takes place on the first Monday of the month at Cafe Dritter Raum on Hertzbergstr., featuring vegan food, global beats and the chance to make valuable connections. The money raised from this event goes towards a variety of Schlafplatzorga provisions, including BVG tickets and rent costs – so come along and bring people who might not otherwise find out about this great initiative!

Berliner Kältehilfe

The classic go-to for when the brutal Berlin winter hits hard, the Kältehilfe has been an essential part of the volunteering effort since its establishment in 1989. Aiming to offer emergency accommodation during particularly freezing winter nights, Kältehilfe operates via a hotline you can call on very cold nights when temperatures are severely low, making it hazardous to spend the night outside, and you see a homeless person in distress. Kältehilfe can pick the person up and offer them warm food and a bed to sleep in. Besides this service, the Kältehilfe also organises a variety of other amenities, including soup kitchens and night cafes. However, this service is mainly limited to the winter months and may not be a viable year-round option if you’re looking into more long-term volunteering.


Mietenwahnsinn poster on a street in Berlin. Source: Private.

Mietenwahnsinn 

Mietenwahnsinn (literally “rent madness” in English) is an organisation committed to fighting against the ongoing hyper-gentrification of Berlin neighbourhoods, which has led to massive rent increases in the past years.


“Mietenwahnsinn stoppen!” (“Stop the rent madness!”) demonstration in Berlin, April 2018. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Calling for an alliance across different organisations working around the same topic in Berlin, Mietenwahnsinn compiles a list of demands (scroll to the bottom of this page to read it). The demands are aimed at reforming the rental market and housing policies, hoping to gain enough traction through protests and demonstrations to catch the attention of those in power who make these policies. Some of these include stopping forced evictions, strictly penalising those that offer their rooms at prices outrageously above the market rental price, and increasing the amount of social housing.


GSBTB volunteer at the Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe. Source: Jess Haverkamp.

There’s always something you can do 

Although the housing situation in Berlin seems to get more dire with every passing year, there’s always something you can do. Whether it’s being aware of your relative privilege as someone who might already have a roof over their head, or thinking about what you have to offer, like an extra sleeping place in your flat or even time or resources you’re willing to donate – the organisations mentioned here welcome help and assistance in all forms.

Recognising your ability to contribute is the first step – together, we can effect real change (big or small) and make Berlin a better place for all people to live in.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Photos (where stated) taken by Jess Haverkamp. Check out more of her work here.