24 Hours on the Streets; The Ultimate Test

Wannabe Homeless?: Or perhaps just try it out for a day

By Kai Ritzmann - Translated by Stephen Krug, Photos: Schulz

 Coming to Berlin soon? Perhaps you would like to experience life on the streets of Berlin with no money, no ID, no house keys or car keys in your pocket. Instead, tattered clothing. Very soon you get the feeling you no longer know how to go on. A "crash course in homelessness", offered by the organization "Obdachlose machen mobil" ("mobilizing against homelessness"), gives you an insight into a totally different kind of life. For 24 hours the experimentee is tossed into the life on the streets, supported only by an accompanying homeless person. To enroll, contact the editing office of the homeless-newspaper "Strassenfeger", Kopernikus-Strasse 2 (Friedrichshain), telephone: 2901959. A donation of 180 DM is expected - and lots of courage. We took the challenge.

24 Hours on the Streets - Enough to Lose Your Dignity

You're standing there in a rut and can't do anything about it: Selling the Berlin homeless paper the "Srassenfeger" as a means of survival.

These looks - colder than words could be. But nobody here would approach me with words anyway. But even the cold looks usually go past me by a hair's breadth. Hardly anyone looks me in the eye as I sit in the 245 on my way to the homeless shelter on Franklin-Strasse on this early evening.

I am wearing tattered clothing - two layers of pullovers and a ridiculous little coat that the railway charity had given me when it suddenly started pouring and the woolens began soaking up the water like a sponge. I look down on the floor or out the window, trying to make myself as small as possible in front of the other passengers, crouching in the face of their cleanliness, their cheerfulness, their looking forward to a comfortable home. They have become alien to me within just one day.

The upright way of walking is easily lost, a lot faster than you would think. When you're down and out you feel as shabby as the clothes you're wearing. Rapidly, you lose that solid middle-class aura, that had appeared to surround you forever and protect you against any peril you might come across. After a good twelve hours on the streets I humbly remove my cap as I ask a watchman in the urban train for directions. Sounds funny somehow, doesn't it? But gradually losing your self-respect is not funny at all.

The lady at the entrance of the homeless shelter is pessimistic about my future. I haven't got my ID-card on me. No ID means no chance of getting any money from the welfare office. "If you don't look after yourself a little more, you'll be back again in half a year, with the same coat - but much skinnier." Now, that hit home! Doesn't anyone see that I'm actually the friendly guy next door? Of course not, nobody does. For my environment I am no longer friendly and no longer someone from next door. The day started off relatively well, with a cup of hot coffee. But the fun is soon over. From Friedrichshain, where the organization "Obdachlosen machen mobil" (Mob) and the editorial office of the homeless-newspaper "Strassenfeger" ("road sweeper") are located, I take the urban train to Zoo station. I don't have a ticket - what choice do I have without a penny in my pocket. The 7 marks 50 for a BVG day-ticket have to be earned first. The VW-van where the "Strassenfeger" can be picked up is on Jebens-Strasse. One mark per paper goes to the organization, one mark remains with the vendor.

With the papers under my arm I'm off to Ku'damm. Lutz, who accompanies me, is a professional and strongly recommends that I approach every passer-by on the street. I can't bring myself to do that. Adolescents fooling around, yuppies with cellular phones, tourists - they will hardly pull out their wallets. With this attitude I manage to sell one paper in half an hour. It's depressing.

My angle is getting narrower. I perceive the boulevard only as a territory, on which I must fight for a couple of marks. Of the colorful wealth of thoughts that normally comes to my mind when I'm strolling down Ku'damm, only one has remained: sell your newspapers! See to it that you get some cash rolling in! After all, the day is long and there's a rumbling in my stomach. I have more luck in the subway. Some people pay the price I ask for and leave the paper with a patronizing look on their face.

On Savigny-Platz I start begging. Two children fish a couple of pennies out of their pockets. I take them and smile gratefully. How low can you get!

At night, in the homeless shelter, I can hardly catch any sleep. The hours are crawling by. The fellow in the bed above me is tossing and turning from one side to the other. One of the others is snoring loudly. And yet another obviously has only his sleep in which he say what's on his mind.

The night is over at six-thirty. Hardly anyone speaks in the breakfast room. Nearly silently the men take advantage of their remaining time to build up their strength for the day - the shelter closes at 9 o'clock. In a few hours I will be back in my home sweet home. If I wouldn't have this possibility to back out, I would have exactly 25 pfennigs initial capital. For a moment a cold shiver runs down my back.

Translated by Stephen Krug.

©Berliner Morgenpost 1997 [berliner morgenpost international]

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