A Day With a Homeless Family
In May, Alva and her three kids were kicked out of their home. Now, they're part of the group of 37,000 homeless people in emergency accommodation in Berlin.
Photos: Flora Rüegg
This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
This morning, like every morning, Alva* wakes up at 6AM next to her three children – who are three, nine and ten years old. They sleep on thin yellow foam mats on the floor. The 36-year-old gets up to cover the window with a red blanket, to keep the sun from waking her kids up.
The family of four are currently living in two tiny rooms covered in cardboard boxes and plastic bags. The boxes are filled with documents, clothes and the rest of their belongings, from kids' books to kitchen utensils. "It's not worth unpacking everything," Alva tells me.
Even if they wanted to unpack, they don't have anywhere to store their stuff – the rooms only have one cupboard each, and no shelves. Plus, they'll eventually have to move out again, hopefully as soon as possible.
In May, Alva's family lost their home. Since then, they have lived in temporary accommodation in northern Berlin, provided by the homeless charity Caritas. The damp, grey apartment building, sandwiched between two tower blocks, is actually a care home for the elderly. But behind a red door on the ground floor, Caritas houses people with nowhere else to go.
For three months earlier this year, Alva says, her husband didn't pay any rent. She didn't know anything about it until the family received an immediate eviction order. They tried, but ultimately failed, to convince their landlord to change his mind. Alva is certain her old landlord will now renovate their flat and rent it out for a lot more than they could ever afford.
According to the charity Shelter, 79,000 families in the UK are in temporary accommodation – around half of which are working households. Last month, Straßenfeger, an organisation that helps to temporarily house homeless families in Berlin, claimed that they have to turn away around five families a week due to a lack of space. There are no exact figures on how many people in Berlin are homeless. The local government only knows about those it houses – which is around 37,000 people in 2017, a 20 percent jump from 2016. Almost a quarter of that number are families.
Alva shuffles a blue pram through the streets of Berlin. Every morning, she crosses the city to take her son to a daycare located in their old neighbourhood, where her family lived for ten years. As they walk down the street, people stop them to say hi. It takes her 45 minutes by bus and train to get there. It's the summer holidays, so her other two kids trail alongside her.
After dropping her son off, Alva grabs a cup of tea in the SOS Children's Village. Here, a cup costs 50 cents. Over tea, Alva chats to other women struggling to get by. "The authorities, the state, no one helps you," says one. "You have to take care of yourself." Alva nods along in agreement.
As a condition of her accommodation agreement with Caritas, Alva must meet with a social worker at least once a week. Her social worker helps her search for a permanent flat and manage her debts. Alva tells me she doesn't know how much she owes, but estimates it's a few thousand euros – some of which is rent her family still owes from her previous flat. Separate from that are fees for childcare and tutoring.
Today, Alva's ten-year-old daughter, Mira, is meeting with the social worker, as her brother plays football a few streets away with other kids. Mira, her nails chewed right down, answers his questions with a maturity that goes well beyond her age. She says things like: "Sometimes, I feel like the authorities are toying with people like we're puppets," and, "You can't trust anybody any more." Later, she explains how she was bullied at school, and how her heart broke when her parents split up – though she adds, "Now I understand why my mum did it."
Fifteen minutes later, Alva and Mira make their way out of the counselling centre. From there, Alva has an appointment at the job centre, then at the police station and finally at another counselling session. "I'm so tired," she says. "That's because you drink too much black tea," Mira responds.
Without their Caritas flat, Alva's kids would be in public emergency accommodation, which would mean they'd have to take their belongings with them every morning in case they were relocated. Alva's family would also be required to share a room with strangers.
There are 140 such emergency centres in Berlin. About a year ago, the city opened a new facility specifically for families – with 30 places, a communal kitchen, lounges and social workers who help with the cooking and socialise with the families. The demand for a place is so high, authorities have revealed plans to expand the family centre's capacity by another 100 places, though the local government is yet to find a building big enough.
It's 12PM as Mira and her mother walk past a bakery and Mira complains she's hungry. "You already had a sandwich and a plum – you won't starve," is Alva's frustrated response.
"Sometimes I'm too angry with the kids, and say things I don't mean," Alva tells me later on, before reinforcing how tired she is. She explains that she often has sleepless nights, and that her scalp itches so badly she scratches it until it bleeds.
Today, Alva has €1 in her purse. She tells me that she will call a friend later who sometimes lends her money, to see if she can borrow some again. "I always pay her back quickly," she says. Alva insists that she's careful with money – preferring to go shopping on weekends when there are more deals on. Even her nine-year-old, she explains, knows that her child benefit payments drop on the 20th of each month. When he reminds her, she tells him not to worry about money and to enjoy his childhood.
Alva came to Germany in her early twenties, dreaming of a better life. She was raised in a village in Macedonia, with eight siblings, in a village of just 30 houses. She claims she was the first in her village to finish high school, with the local newspaper even covering the achievement. And then she fell in love with a German man who had family in Macedonia.
"I had seen too many films," she remembers. "For me, Berlin was like New York." But instead of the penthouse of her dreams, she found herself in a small flat with worn furniture. Her husband was a cook, she cleaned offices – getting up at 4AM every morning and working for €1,300 a month.
Then came the kids, and with them, more arguments. Her husband worked nights, and spent the majority of the money he made in casinos, or sent it back home to Macedonia. "He built his family a house with it, while his own kids slept on the floor," Alva says. "If we get an apartment, and everything settles down, I'll get a divorce."
It might take a while for the family to get that apartment, however. "Many people stay in the shelter for several months," says Kai-Gerrit Venske, a social worker at Caritas. "Sometimes for as long as a year." Previously, the majority of the Berlin's homeless were migrants. Now, more and more of the people who come to Caritas are German citizens. "In the last seven or eight years, the housing situation in Berlin has worsened dramatically," Venske adds. Landlords are less and less understanding because they know they can fill vacancies fast with people ready to pay more.
Alva sits on a park bench, while Mira digs her fingers into a sandbox a few metres away. She tells me that she doesn't drink or take drugs, and that she's applied for over 100 flats, but was only invited to viewings for ten of them. Sometimes, the landlords hang up immediately when they hear her foreign name. On Friday, she has another viewing: a two-and-a-half room flat in Charlottenburg, a district in western Berlin. Alva says she has a good feeling about this one.
Alva was right to feel positive – shortly after our day together, with the help of a friend, her family was offered a permanent apartment.
*Names have been changed to protect Alva and her family's identity.