Petra’s story reflects the struggle of the roughly 2,500 homeless women in the German capital, who have been made even more vulnerable by the coronavirus outbreak.
It’s getting dark at “Evas Obdach” (Eva’s Refuge) in Neukölln, the largest district in Berlin and one of the most ethnically diverse.
After a full day in the winter cold, women carrying heavy bags or dragging overloaded shopping carts behind them enter, visibly tired.
Here they can have a hot meal, shower and spend the night, all in a comparably safe environment.
Petra, who is in her 60s, takes a seat.
“Look how beautiful it is here, it really is a place made for us. They even have different kinds of tea, ”he says quietly, with a hesitant smile.
‘Corona put me on the street’
She is one of the few women willing to talk a bit about her history, on the condition that only her first name is used.
Petra had arrived in Berlin last March, at the beginning of Germany’s first shutdown.
He was counting on staying in a small hotel, but was denied a room because coronavirus restrictions banned overnight stays, except for business travelers.
He ended up on a city mission and has been jumping from shelter to shelter ever since.
When asked why she moved to the capital and how much money she had when she did, Petra is not very forthcoming with the answers, but she is sure of one thing: “Corona put me on the street.”
“I trained as a chemist, I worked in restaurants, I had a career … I never thought this would happen to me,” he said.
Official statistics on the number of people in Germany who were made homeless during the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis are difficult to obtain.
“There is no indication at this time that it has increased dramatically,” said Werena Rosenke, director of the BAG association, which groups together several homeless aid organizations.
“But it is possible that it will begin to be seen after the pandemic, when the eviction orders are executed, which are currently suspended,” he told AFP.
Advocates say reliable statistics on those affected are lacking.
In Berlin, a voluntary census in early 2020, before the Covid-19 outbreak, counted nearly 2,000 homeless people, but charity groups estimated the number much higher, between 6,000 and 9,000, including some 2,500 women.
‘Sense of shame’
Natalie Kulik, founder of Evas Obdach, said her unique situation is often invisible to policy makers and society at large.
Women try to avoid the streets for as long as possible, even if that means enduring violence in their marriage or turning to prostitution to pay rent, she said.
A homeless person with a sign saying “homeless, jobless, hungry, thank you.” Photo: DPA
And if they end up without keeping a roof over their heads, they often try to hide their situation, “paying particular attention to their appearance,” Kulik said, blaming “a sense of shame.”
“The street is dangerous for them,” he said.
Protection in a mixed shelter is often paid for with sexual favors.
“Most of our guests here would never admit they are homeless,” he said. Genevieve, a talkative Frenchwoman in her 50s who spends the night at the shelter, is just one example.
“I pay the rent but I can’t go home because my neighbors harass me,” said Genevieve, who has lived in Berlin for 20 years, many of them alone since her divorce.
“People think I’m crazy when I tell my story,” she said.
The pandemic compounds the psychological stress faced by homeless women, whose mental state is often fragile, Kulik said.
“You see some creating their own worlds, a survival strategy” that makes them resistant to help.
The restrictions under the Covid-19 shutdown have generally worsened the precarious living conditions for all homeless people, charity groups agree.
Sources of income, such as collecting deposit bottles or begging, have dried up when people stay home.
Shelters themselves have had to cut the number of beds available to accommodate social distancing.
This winter, the Berlin government expanded temporary accommodation facilities by renting vacant hotels, spokesman Stefan Strauss told AFP, adding that a coronavirus vaccination program for the homeless should start “soon.”
But with the arrival of spring, there is a risk that “all the additional aid will disappear,” warned Anett Leach of the Klik charity, which helps young people with housing and social difficulties.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism