When reality strikes back

If you volunteer, like I do, in a free-shop, or to re-distribute food, you get confronted with the harsh reality people face. Especially those, who have not choice but to live on the streets. And especially in winter.

Rents are going up here. People, even with jobs, can’t afford a place to live.

We now have the biggest slum in Germany. People who made “houses” out of old pellets and broken tents. Since they are camping out on private property, the government can’t even provide the barest necesseties, such as toilets. They only stop people building fires to stay warm. The risk of the whole place burning down is just too big.

While saving the food on the market, I also spot two huge bags of shoes. Since it is raining a bit, we decide to save those shoes too. There are also a lot of children’s shoes. One of us volunteers to not just bring the food to the “slum”, but also the shoes. Because we know, in that slum, there also families with kids.

Since a few weeks, a young couple has made their home under the bridge. They even put up a mirror againt the bridge walls. Three doggies are leashed to shopping carts, and two mountain bikes are parked against them. She’s reading a book. He goes for some quick shopping.  It’s not that they lack money. They just can’t afford a place to live. In the shopping carts, there are pots & pans. They still haven’t lost hope to get a real roof over their heads.

When I bike around with the saved food, I see the homeless people everywhere. Huddled in blankets. Layer of layer to keep warm. They call it “zwiebeln”, “onionizing”. And yes, they drink. To get a false feeling of warmth. To numb themselves. I spot a guy hiding behind some stuff a shop put outside. A huge blanket around his shoulders. Every now and then turning to face the wall, and take a quick sip of a cheap bottle of wine. Ignored by all the people doing their xmas-shopping. When I ask him if he needs food, he doesn’t say anything. Just looks at me. Shakes his head. Huddles back into his blanket. As if he gave up already.

A bit further another guy stands near his shopping cart. I know him. He comes in the free-shop. He’s “confused”. Wears a huge dirty winter coat with stuffed animals pinned to them. When he’s in the shop, he’s very chatty and laughing a lot. Though his logic is hard to follow. Gathers some warm stuff, a book, and another stuffed animal to pin to his coat. Then tells us, he needs to go back to his “wagon”. Only when I saw him with the shopping cart, I realize with “wagon” he meant his cart…

By now, it is so cold, the homeless don’t even have the energy to beg. And it is  warm for the time of the year. The real winter still has to show up.

Sometimes you can do something, however small, for even a short time. Offer a few hours of staying inside and warmth. Tea. Soup. Warm clothes. Dry socks.

The free-shop is almost out of winter coats and thick sweaters. Socks are always short. Luckily we still have a huge supply of scarfs, beanies and gloves. An elderly lady brought knitted gloves today. A young woman comes in, rubbing her hands. Only wearing a jeans jacket. Perfect make-up. From her accent, I guess she’s spanish or so. We guess she’s a party tourist, unprepared for the cold here. So she’s very happy with the gloves and very fashionable scarf-with-hood I found for her.

Another woman comes in. She does volunteer work with refugees and elderly people. Normally we have a rule of no more than 5 items per person per visit. But she roams the bookshelves for books elderly people love. Books most of our visitors aren’t to keen on, love stories and such. So please take as many as you want. Though she has a bad leg and needs crutches, she reaches for the top shelves, and I help her to load all the books on her bike, plus warm stuff for the refugees, so she can bring them to the people she cares for. She thanks me for the existence of the shop. And I know, this woman with her bad leg will go way over her limits to help other people.

Today I also brought soup to my shift in the free shop. On the way, I meet one of my “favorite” homeless people. In summer, he’s very lively. A very intelligent older man. Though he lives in the park, he does volunteer work. He’s one of the “mediators” in the park, the other homeless hold him in very high regard. But today, he’s staggering. He drank to keep warm. I tell him there will be soup soonish in the free shop, but I know that information didn’t really hit home…

I’m always very early for my shift. To prepare the rooms and that kind of stuff. There’s a guy sitting outside. Obviously waiting for the shop to open and get warm. I tell him there will be soup soonish, but he has to stay outside till my colleague arrives. A bit later I let him in anyway, I can’t really let him sit outside in the cold… He stays till almost the end, he can’t wait for the soup to get hot and the coffee. And the warmth, he fell asleep against the heating. One of our other regulars is going to save some food, to bring it to one of the homeless shelters. He takes the guy with him. That way, if he arrives with the food, there’s a bigger chance for him to get a bed. Though it also means someone won’t get that bed. The shelters are always filled up to the max.

And they are only for “legal” people. People with papers. My colleague finds one of our regulars on the streets. Sitting bare-chested on a bench. She takes him in. Feeds him soup.  Tea. I find him later under our book-shelves. Reading. We try to talk to him. But though his german is excellent, he is “confused”. At the end of our shift, we tell him he has to leave. He knows. He goes. Thanks us. His face, the almost tear-filled eyes, will hunt me for days…

You need to harden your heart sometimes. We can’t let the people stay in our shop after we’re closed. We can’t provide the help they need. We’re just a frikkin’ free shop. But the shelters are full. The first people have frozen to death. There are just too many people on the streets, and their number is increasing. Because the rents keep going up..

The only thing you can do is the small things. For a few hours. And try to harden your heart. But it is really, really hard sometimes… And when at night, I built my little nest of blankets and cat, I can’t help but to count my blessings, and how lucky I am. And the last thoughts before I fall asleep are with the people in the slum, under the bridges and in the parks….

Things which make the dark days bearable

  • A busker in the subway playing the violin so absorbed, he almost forgets to stop and collect the money. His wonderful and emotional music almost brought tears to my eyes and a huge smile, not just from me, but also on the faces of the other commuters
  • Two young dark-skinned girls tell an elderly white guy smoking in the subway: “Show some respect!”, and an elderly woman thanks them for it. The smoker hides in a corner and kills his cigarette. Nice to see “Berliner Schnautze” (Berlin Big Mouth) is a tradition still going strong :).
  • Alexanderplatz: Woman in her 60s carrying part of her Xmas shopping in a paper bag. The bag splits and her things fall out, luckily on a bench. An elderly guy sitting on that bench asks if he can help, but she’s already pulling out a fabric bag from her handbag, murmuring “stupid paper bags”. The guy agrees, but tells her to see it positively: at least the stuff didn’t drop when she was walking the wet streets. She nods and says: well, still it is better than plastic bags.
  • Too many shoes in the free shop. So I take some with me and display them on my window ledge. Many of them are gone the next day. When I go to work, I see a guy taking a pic of the row of summer high heels.
  • Almost all of them are gone when I come back from work. Strangely enough, the winter boots are still there. I put them on the corner of the main street, in the hope someone wants them. Unfortunately, 3 days later, still no one took them. When I start my shift in the free shop, a well-dressed guy comes in with a bag. And he takes out those boots, yes those same boots, which were gathering dust in our shop for several years, and which I put on the streets. Some things are really hard to get rid off…
  • Free shop. We still have too many frikkin’ shoes. But they are needed too. We put some outside, and a guy comes by, shows me his leaking shoes, which he had stuffed with toilet paper, since he had no socks either. I quickly invite him in, and he not only finds shoes in his size, but also the socks, and quite a few other things to keep him warm on the street….