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Berlin–Working as a photo journalist, I’m usually at my home in Berlin for only a part of the year – the rest of my time in faraway countries, documenting life on the ground for Germany and other publications. In March, when the coronavirus began to make devastating breakthroughs in Europe, I was assigned to Iraq – I caught the last plane from Erbil before travel restrictions were imposed. Now, like all my neighbors, I’m trapped here in the former East Berlin Friedrichshain area. When I take shelter in a place, my local environment has become a new place to explore.
I have been living in my current apartment since December. It was in a cheap neighborhood, located in a high concrete ring housing block. A stone’s throw is a doner kebab factory that has long been abandoned, where a group of people without traditional housing lives, some of them for years. When the German economy came to a standstill, these people were left without a stable income or help from the authorities to get through this crisis. So I, together with my roommate who works in an emergency shelter for women, reaches out to people who live in factories, asking them what they need to face this crisis, how can we help. We finally opened our bathroom for the two women who lived in the factory, and learned a lot about the challenges facing them now.
There are an estimated 6,000-10,000 homeless people living in Berlin, a figure that has risen steadily in recent years. Assistance offered by government and non-profit organizations cannot accommodate the diverse and long-term needs of this community, and shelters with Internet access, restrooms, and access to medical care are hard to come by – especially for those with disabilities, mental illnesses, and pets .
Although Berlin has a better position than other Eastern European cities to serve the homeless population, not enough is being done to combat the true root causes of homelessness. And while the city is considering coronavirus, service is on hold or reduced. The shelter where my roommate works, for example, usually only opens in winter, and only accommodates women who had lived there the week before the coronavirus outbreak – now it’s closed. Food distribution centers and providing bathrooms are mostly closed, and, in the middle of a pandemic where cleanliness is very important, there are only two places in the city where the homeless can wash themselves. Benjamin, one of the men who lived in the factory, told me, “For us homeless, the most important thing is washing. Right now we need a place where we can take a shower. ”
As in other cities, many homeless people here earn money by collecting bottles: In Germany you can receive 25 cents per plastic bottle and 15 cups at the supermarket. But with parks and plazas empty of their usual crowd, no bottles can be found. There is no money for food, let alone alcohol and drugs. With many homeless people suffering from alcohol or drug dependence, this sudden termination can be life-threatening.
Berlin is a city that boasts a sense of civic solidarity, but Covid-19 has screwed up its identity – anxiety about the virus has caused many complaints to authorities about homelessness. People who live in factories feel acutely, telling me that they are treated like lepers, or worse, neglected – out of sight. Just last week, after years of occupation, the kebab factory was cleaned: The police came and told everyone to leave. Some have gone to an open camp in Marzahn, far from the city center, others do on the streets. As Benjamin told me, coronavirus has changed the fragile life they built in the factory: “I want the old world back.”
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