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DOWN & OUT IN GERMANY
- What is a destitute’s life like'

On 1 August, mob celebrated its tenth anniversary. In the summer of 1993, associations of homeless and destitute people got together in Brussels and formed the Fédération Européenne d’Associations Nationales Travaillant avec les Sans-Abri — European Federation of National Associations working with homeless persons. The object was to lobby the European Commission to do more for destitutes. Its formation activated movements in many European cities.

A few destitutes set up an information kiosk in the centre of Berlin and slept around it. Some set up Ratten (Rats) — a theatre group — in Rosa Luxemburg Platz. An organization called Berliner Initiative Nichtsesshaften (starving people’s initiative) was set up in March 1994. Finally on 1 August 1994, a very hot day, some 20 people got together to found a magazine. After exhausting discussions all day, seven people were left — just enough to form an association under German law. They agreed on the constitution, signed the register, decided to call the association mob, and repaired to a nearby pub.

They started off in an 8-square-metre room which served at night as a night shelter. Today the editorial office of Strassenfeger, the current magazine, is in Prenzlauer Allee 87. Some 20 people work there. Most have been sent by the Sozialamt, the government office that helps poor people; it sends people with some experience in writing, photography or layout. Sometimes the State Attorney sends someone who is unable to pay a court-imposed fine and is sentenced to community work. A few people turn up as volunteers.

The organization runs a night shelter for eight men and four women, plus their animals (usually dogs). No one is turned away. The shelter is manned from 9 AM to 11 PM. Thanks to gifts from companies, the shelter gives its residents free towels, shampoo, face cream, razors, shaving cream and deodorant. Alcohol and drugs are not allowed. All residents must leave the shelter at 10 AM; it opens again at 7 PM. But their personal belongings are safe meanwhile. The women’s bathroom is not quite up to standard; there is no television, and a refrigerator would be welcome. mob seeks donations for them.

When they come down from the shelter in the morning, the residents may visit Kaffee Bankrott, a streetside café run by mob. There they can have breakfast or lunch for 1.50 Euros; those that cannot afford it are fed free. In Kaffee Bankrott they can use a computer, access internet, play cards, or just hang around and chat. They can buy coffee made by Anselmo Berandt, a 58-years-old homosexual who was sent to do eight days’ community service in January and stayed on. The food is sent free by a cookery school. The print run is 20,000 copies; they are given to homeless people to sell at 1.20 Euros each; they can keep half of what they earn thereby. Thus you see homeless people selling Strassenfeger outside railway stations, restaurants and museums; you are free to give more than the price of the magazine. The anniversary issue is 24 pages, with a cover in colour and two pages of photographs — all of dogs, probably belonging to destitutes. They look very well behaved; some look resigned.

What is a destitute’s life like' Christine Feher has just published a novel, Strassenblues. In it, she has run away from home because her mother has taken on an unpleasant new boy friend. She wakes up frozen stiff when the mouse Emily runs over her face. She finds Ronny, the boy with whom she shared the bed, still asleep, having drawn off most of the quilt. It is no longer quite dark, and she needs to piss, so she staggers out of the house and looks for a place where she would not be seen. She comes back and lies down. Ronny hugs her. A smell of the joints he had roasted on open fire the previous night hangs in the air. He and his friend Marvin had eaten them, giving her nothing. Soon Marvin wakes up, and asks Ronny if he had some food. Ronny tells him to go and get his own food next time, and hands him a packet of biscuits. Marvin takes a couple and gives them to the heroine.

They have gone damp. There is nothing to drink in the house; the water supply has been turned off. She cannot swallow the biscuits. She throws some crumbs to Emily….

Who are the homeless' How did they lose a roof over their heads' Christopher Grohn had a good job, friends, hobbies, sports — everything needed for a happy life. Then he moved into a room as a subtenant. His landlord was an alcoholic ruffian. He stole all that Grohn had, and threatened him. The police refused to help Grohn, saying it was a civil matter and he should go to a lawyer. He did not have the money for that. He was thrown out on the streets.

Another, Glenn Mueller, was an old people’s attendant. He lived with a craftsman. His friend was operated for brain tumour and returned incapable of helping himself. Glenn looked after him, and when he died, buried him at his own cost. His friend left him everything. But soon relatives turned up, accused Glenn of having forced his friend to leave him everything, and ensnared him in lawsuits which Glenn could not afford. He had a nervous breakdown and ended up on the streets. He would like to become Chancellor (that is, Prime Minister of Germany). He would abolish all taxes. Everyone would send their wage to the government every month; it would take what it needed and would send the rest back.

Dirk Ruediger grew up in East Berlin. He was close to the Puhdys, East Germany’s most popular pop group, and had a great childhood. He trained to be a mason. Once he got drunk and as a result had an accident on a building site. He could no longer work; his marriage broke down, and he became destitute. His greatest wish is to find another woman.

The most remarkable is Heidemarie Schwermer, author of Das Sterntaler-Experiment, Mein Leben ohne Geld (my life without money). She was a successful, comfortably off psychotherapist. At 54, she gave away her furniture, closed her practice, gave up her house and became a destitute as an experiment. She resolved to live without money; now she handles small amounts, but avoids money as far as possible. She set up a barter agency in Dortmund. Having run it for some time, she left it for greener pastures.

Nowadays she looks after the homes of people who are travelling. They leave her food and drinks; often they have both delivered to her every week while they are away. She wrote to the Mayor of Dortmund that she would like to pay taxes in the form of service — for instance, by cleaning streets or wiping benches. Her offer is still to be accepted. She says that after she became destitute, she has met an enormous variety of people she would never have met in her earlier life. We had in our culture the concept of non-possession, something holy men practised. Today, it is a German woman who practises it.

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