COVID-19 lockdown hits Berlin’s unemployed, homeless and refugees

The lives of people on the margins in Germany’s capital have been upended as uncertainty about the future grows.

Berlin homeless shelter
Since the start of the lockdown, one of the city's main homeless shelters runs on a skeleton staff of volunteers, and now hands out food and drinks from its front windows [Gouri Sharma/Al Jazeera]

Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect identities. 

Berlin, Germany – The past two weeks have been difficult for Diana*, who arrived in Berlin from Switzerland a few months ago.

She was just about making ends meet with a teaching job and some modelling work, when the outbreak of the new coronavirus upended her daily life, making her vulnerable living situation more precarious.

She has been let go from her teaching role and without the backing of a contract, which she says her boss refused to provide, Diana is not sure she will even receive her outstanding paycheque.

She has yet to register in her new city, so accessing social security support is also not an option for the 25-year-old. 

“Everything happened really quickly,” Diana told Al Jazeera. “A week before things were shut down, I fell sick, and just after that, my boss told me to come and collect my stuff because I wasn’t going to be teaching for five weeks at least. And that was it. Switzerland isn’t part of the EU [European Union], and that makes things harder – right now I can’t get support from there or from Germany.”

Diana contacted a space for which she had once modelled. Located in the east of the city, Karada House has gone from being a queer collaborative art space that holds workshops and events, to a volunteer-led relief collective providing assistance to those who have slipped through the cracks of the country’s welfare system. 

In just a couple of weeks, the handful of housebound volunteers – most of whom have never met, have raised nearly 10,000 euros ($11,027) through a crowdfunding campaign.

They have also been connecting volunteers to people in the city in need of food, medical or mental health support.

Beatrice Behn, a volunteer coordinator and artist, told Al Jazeera: “We are mostly dealing with young people who have chronic illnesses or are disabled, or those who already have very fragile situations.

“Many of them are slipping through the net because they are not German, or because of the city’s housing problems. People are desperate to find a flat, so are living in sublets or with semi-legal housing contracts, which means they can’t fully register here and access any services.”

Alongside neighbourhood groups offering help to those who are sick, elderly or in need of childcare, others provide resources for sex workers, offering video therapy sessions, and work to protect the city’s cultural scene, including its clubbing industry and arts community.

Al Jazeera also spoke to a schoolteacher who is concerned that students in his primary school class – mainly from lower economic or minority German backgrounds – may fall behind, so he is doing individual lessons via phone.

Diana, who will use the money she received from Karada to cover some of her monthly rent and food, hopes the solidarity continues.

For Wilhelm Nadolny, the lockdown has meant that every day at the homeless day centre he manages has been different.

Nadolny is the director at Bahnhofsmission Zoologischer Garten, a shelter next to a busy central station.

It’s part of Berliner Stadtmission, which for nearly 150 years has been providing assistance to seniors, refugees and children, making it one of the city’s oldest social support centres. 

Without housing to self-isolate, access to healthcare and limited bathroom facilities, those living on the streets are particularly vulnerable.

According to Berlin’s first official census on its homeless population published earlier this year, there are nearly 2,000 people living on the streets in the German capital. 

Social workers, however, say that the figure should be met with caution as it doesn’t include those living on private properties or in abandoned buildings.

With the ban on large gatherings temporarily shutting homeless day centres, Nadolny says they are seeing some new faces.

His 24-hour centre is usually open seven days a week, all year round, and sustained by a number of elderly volunteers.

But elderly volunteers no longer come in, and the centre, which usually supports around 600 people daily, is running on reduced hours with help from a smaller, younger team.

Prior to the pandemic, the main eating area could hold 60 people, including 10 volunteers, and bathroom access was easier.

Now food bags with sandwiches, apples and plums are being handed out from a window and distribution times are staggered to limit human contact.

“Everybody here is trying to keep calm and focused. We are washing our hands regularly and using sanitiser, and the shower is being used less. We are taking each day as it comes and doing our best,” said Nadolny. “We can’t say what will be waiting for us next week, or even tomorrow.”


Other high-risk Berlin residents are those living in refugee accommodation.

According to state authorities, there are 20,000 people living within 83 shelters, and most have a maximum capacity of 350.

There have so far been 10 positive coronavirus cases emerging from within the city’s shelters, with one death.

Across Germany, a reported 21 people living in refugee accommodation have already contracted the virus. 

The State Office for Refugee Affairs in Berlin told Al Jazeera that it has implemented a series of measures, including providing information on hygiene and stressing the importance of the quarantine, and a podcast in various languages is being developed.  

Activists, however, say more needs to be done to reduce the risks for those living in inadequate shared housing.

A spokeswoman for Women in Exile, a refugee-led grassroots organisation, told Al Jazeera: “It’s difficult for us to know what’s going on. Not enough official material is being translated and there’s a lot of fear, but people don’t have any alternative.”

The pandemic has also increased nationwide calls to close large refugee shelters and house people in safer, cleaner homes.

As residents in the German capital adjust to an indefinite period behind closed doors, those on the front line say community support is needed more than ever.

“It’s a very human thing to do, to come together as a community in times of crisis and in a way we are going back to the roots right now, which is very good to see because we are all in this together,” said Behn, the Karada House volunteer. “I think most people have realised that there are no exceptions with the virus, so things now need to change.”

Berlin homeless shelter
With elderly volunteers no longer coming in, the homeless centre has fewer volunteers and has had to reduce its service hours [Gouri Sharma/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera