Unlike Perspectives: Exploring Berlin Through Homeless Eyes

Unlike Perspectives: Exploring Berlin Through Homeless Eyes

In a city known for its rich history, touristy landscape and cultural diversity, there lays a perspective often overlooked. Between the towering structures and bustling streets, a first-hand perspective from the city’s homeless community can be found, shedding light on the overlooked perspective of the city.

According to BAG W and other welfare associations, the streets of Berlin are currently the home of an estimated 10,000 individuals. But that’s not all. Aside from the people living on the streets, up to 40.000 individuals have no permanent home and are experiencing homelessness. These people live in shelters or other accommodations funded by the German government. With this many people experiencing homelessness right now, it is important to understand their perspective of the city. 

“I was surprised when I got to Berlin, that the homeless people have so many places where one could go get something to eat, or that you have offers for homeless people. For people to go to get food and clothes” says Petra Elten. “The only people that make it not nice are the homeless themselves”. Petra came to Berlin in 2003 to battle her heroin addiction and began withdrawal therapy at one of the clinics in Berlin. When she prematurely quit the treatment, she found herself without a home in a foreign city. Nowadays, after overcoming her 38-year-long addiction, Petra shares her story during her city tours.

Petra tells her story during city tours to tell the story from the point of view of directly affected people on the street. These tours are organised by Querstadtein, a non-profit association. During these tours, Berlin is shown through the eyes of Petra. 

Petra’s tour starts at the Berliner Stadtmission on the Lehrter Straße, one of the largest emergency shelters in Berlin. These emergency shelters are an essential haven for many people who are living on the streets during the colder nights. Yet many still prefer sleeping on the streets. Even in freezing temperatures. Petra explains that this is due to a couple of reasons. Some have to walk a long distance to get to one of these shelters and don’t have the money to take public transport. Others do not like the circumstances that come with staying at the shelter, such as waiting a long time to be allowed entry, or the state other people staying at the shelter are in. “Even if I was on drugs and sleeping on the street, I would still shower myself almost every day at least. And wash myself. And then when you go to these places where so many people sleep together, there are people who haven’t washed themselves for a year or something. So they’re not nice anymore, these places. And you don’t want to go to sleep there” explains Petra. 

Because of this, people leave the emergency shelters and rather sleep on the streets. Yet this does not go without risks. “We slept in a big group because sometimes, people came outside to burn or hurt us. For no reason” says Petra sorrowfully. “I was also afraid to stay outside because I was a woman.” 

The tour went on to the next stop at the central station of Berlin, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof. This station is a place where people experiencing homelessness are trying to earn money by selling street papers. And so did Petra. Admendant at first, Petra came to see the station as a second home. 

While walking around the station, Petra is greeted by multiple individuals. Some are selling street papers at the station, while others are simply passing by. When asked if there are certain communities or groups when it comes to people living without a home, Petra answers: “They’re always together. So they are always sleeping at the same place. And some of them you met with me right now, these young boys. They’re from that group.” 

Continuing to the riverbanks of the Spree, Petra resumes to tell how she would sometimes sleep here after selling the street papers. Even though she had found herself housing at that point. “When I was sleeping on the street, I never considered myself as a homeless. I just thought, okay, I’m sleeping here. But this is just for a while. I just never thought of myself as a homeless. So I never told anybody I was homeless. I always looked quite all right, actually.” 

When asked if she has fond memories of her time when homeless, Petra says that yes, there are. She looks back on the times when they would grill food near the riverbanks of the Spree, or to all the people she met. She goes on to say that her story is unique and that not many share the same mindset. 

As Petra’s city tour comes to an end, Petra’s listeners are left with a deep sense of reflection. They’ve walked through the city with her, not just as tourists, but as witnesses to a reality often overlooked. 

About The Author