The bus that comes in winter

by Mattia Rosini - 2012.01.09
The bus that comes in winter
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In Berlin, there are around four thousand homeless people. How do they survive German ice-cold winter and its temperature of up to twenty degrees below zero? Every year, on November 1, the municipality of Berlin launches a program aiming at helping the homeless in this period of the year. About twenty associations and cooperatives are involved in this project; they provide housing for night and the so-called Kältebus (the bus of cold).

This what we discuss with with Ortrud Wohlwend, the person in charge of the Kältebus of the Beliner Stadtmission, the biggest association managing one of the centres for the "cold emergency". "Kältehilfe provides two kinds of different services: night reception centres and Kältebus. Our program starts on November 1 and finishes on March 31. In the case of a longer and colder winter, its end can be postponed. Kältebus was created in 1994, and is on function from 9:00 p.m. until 3-4 a.m.

What does the bus actually do?

"Every night, our bus goes through the streets of Berlin joining those people who cannot go back to their reception centres, maybe because they are too tired or too drunk. In this way, we limit the risk they can die of cold. We have created a special phone number; everyone can directly call us and ask for our intervention. However, some people do not want to stay in a reception centre; thus, in these particular cases our operators personally go to those place where, usually, the homeless spend the night, remain with them for a while, monitor their health conditions; they try, in other words, to create contact. This contact may later turn into trust and sometimes the user accepts to be received in a centre".

Is your Kältebus also called by people walking by, signalling a potentially dangerous situation?

"It happens very often. Berliners have a strong sense of responsibility and that is proved by the large participation in the funding campaign through text messages. But our initiative is supported by the economic and commercial world as well. Some hotels provide food for breakfast and dinner and we are financially supported by insurance companies, which give us the opportunity to buy medicines."

Berliner Stadtmission reception centre is near the central railway station. Undoubtedly, this fact represents an advantage for users because they can join it easily, unlike what happens, for instance, in Rome where, since 2009, reception centres have been located far from the downtown. Moreover, everyone can go to the reception centre for eating or having a shower. There is no need to show an ID but, naturally, some rules must be respected.
In the centre there are sixty beds; ten of them are specifically for women. "The problem is that," Wohlwend says, "since the first day, eighty people have contacted us asking to be received in our centre".

What people do you receive in your centre?

"Many of the users are old people, but ultimately the number of youths has increased. Many people come from Eastern European countries, especially from Poland. Recently we have welcomed an entire family. They were from Greece, they had left their country with the hope of a better future in Germany but they were forced to live in the streets".

Berliner Stadtmission manages not only emergency centres but also the Wohnprojekt. These long-term reception centres can receive up to 150 people. "Here, users are personally assisted by an operator all along the period of their stay", Wohlwend says. There also is a psychological support service, centres are always open and every user can stay there around twelve-eighteen months".

In conclusion, do you think that the problem of the homeless represents an actual emergency for Berlin?

"Undoubtedly, this situation is becoming increasingly difficult. Last year we registered the record of 180 reception demands in a night and, in general, an annual increase of ten percent is noticed. The most delicate situation concerns sick people, who do not live legally in Germany and cannot benefit from social services and health assistance. However, there exists an extraordinary interconnection among associations, the Evangelical Church and Catholic Church. All together we efficiently face this complex problem, helping the homeless and giving them the most important services."

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