We Visited Berlin's 'Homeless University'

The project offers anyone the chance to learn, a cheap meal, and a community to lean on.

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Jul 12 2018, 5:00pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

Dietmar keeps a tight grip on his walker as he inches forward through the Schöneweide district of Berlin. He's moving fast, almost too fast. "Ich will nicht zu spat kommen," he says, before pausing as if to correct himself. "I don't want to be late," he repeats in English. The 72-year-old knows he should be practicing; he's on his way to his English lesson.

The class is part of Berlin's Homeless University project, run by the Social Pedagogical Institute of Berlin (SPI). According to SPI, the project aims to be a "low-threshold meeting and advice center." In other words, everyone is welcome.

The "students" are mostly aged between 60 and 80 years old, and are offered 14 courses on a range of subjects—from philosophy and religious education to handicrafts and yoga—which are taught at the Strohalm community center.

Dietmar hopes his English lessons will help keep his mind fit.

In 2001, Dietmar was the victim of a hit-and-run car accident. He suffered multiple fractures and some brain damage. As the 72-year-old climbs the handful of stairs leading up to his classroom, he tells me that the accident led to a real downturn in his fortunes. But he decided last year to take up these lessons in order to somewhat change that and "keep my mind fit."

There are eight students in today's advanced English lesson. They are all over 60, but their teacher is 17. Kim Nitsche is a volunteer here and, despite the age difference, seems to have total control over her students. "Don't lose this like you always do," Nitsche warns Dietmar as she lends him a pen. He nods back bashfully.

Later on, Nitsche explains to the class the difference between "nice" and "niece." "My nice niece!" Dietmar calls out, to the amusement of his classmates. When everyone calms down, Nitsche gets them to fill out a worksheet about irregular verbs, and the classroom goes silent. Though the room is lined with computers, her students, she explains, prefer to "stick with the analoge option of a pen and paper."

Nitsche has been teaching at the university for the past nine months, instead of going to class herself. "I graduated from school when I was 16, and I wanted to get some work experience," she tells me. Since discovering through this opportunity that teaching seems to bring out her confidence, Nitsche has decided to become a primary school teacher.

The Homeless University was founded by Maik Eimertenbrink in 2011. The idea was inspired by the University of Graz in Austria, which offers lectures for free to anyone who can attend. Eimertenbrink has adapted the concept to offer anyone the chance to teach a course, regardless of whether they have a qualification or not. The aim, as Nitsche reiterates, is for "people to learn, not pass exams."

The majority of the students are not completely homeless. Eimertenbrink explains that most are living in "housing projects and shelters," while people like Dietmar attend as a way of getting through a recent trauma.

Soon after his English lesson is over, I find Dietmar sitting on a wooden chair nearby, surrounded by a few of his classmates. He tells me in German that he has an apartment, but he lives alone. His tone is optimistic as if something exciting is coming up in the not-too-distant future. "I just want to turn 73," he tells me. "And now I have friends," he adds, looking around. A few look up and smile in agreement. "Friends," he repeats in English.

With that, Dietmar suddenly gets up, says his goodbyes, and dashes off for lunch. It's "curry turkey with rice day," he says, at a cost of just €1.20 [$1.40].

The cast rehearsing 'The Crazy Fairy Tale Show.'

Once a week, a local theater group puts on a workshop at the community center—decorating the stage with items created by the university's handicraft class. Today, the cast are rehearsing The Crazy Fairy Tale Show, in which Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and other classic fairy tale characters are remixed.

In one scene, we see the wolf make his way through the forest, trying to hawk goods that nobody seems to want. "I'm old and sick!" says the grandmother in response to the wolf's offer. "But it's the finest whiskey, for just €4.99 [$5.85]," the wolf responds, as he caresses the old lady. But she's having none of it. "I said no!" she insists, after the wolf tries pushing it as a "magic potion." The animal skulks away before Svenja, the director, shouts "End scene!"

The grandmother is a 53-year-old called Markus—an alcoholic who has been sober now for two months. I meet the wolf as he steps out for a smoke break. His name is Rainer, a long-haired old rocker who has several charms dangling down around his neck, one of a stern-looking falcon. He's 58 but could pass for 70. "I spent ten years on the street," he says as he stubs out his hand-rolled cigarette. "When it's minus 20 and you're sleeping outside, you turn to the drink."

He has a faded homemade tattoo of a sword on his forearm, which was created using a fountain pen and three needles. "An accident from East Germany," he laughs motioning to the ink. "I only did that to myself because tattoos were banned in the GDR."

Rainer describes his current situation as "stable," though like many people at the university he knows that his battle will never be over. He tells me that he's recently taken up photography and that he's studying to become a theater teacher. "Save yourself to help others—that's how the university works."

Stolpe shows off his painting. Photo by Nik Afanasjew

Back at the university, I walk into a classroom where two men are painting. "It's usually just us here," says König, the art teacher. "We recently had a female student who was really talented, but unfortunately, she was addicted to pills and suddenly stopped showing up, which is often the case with those struggling with addiction," adds his student and part-time teaching assistant, Stolpe.

Stolpe cleans off his brush in a pickle jar filled with water so he can apply the next color to a dramatic painting of a ship fighting to stay afloat at sea. "A while ago, I lost my job, my wife, and my apartment," he reveals, though today he says he leads a "better life" and is no longer homeless.

König shows off his version of Frida Kahlo's self-portrait, with a dominant monobrow and self-confident eyes. "I only paint with company, I can't paint when I'm alone," König tells me.

"At first, I wondered why I should bother learning to paint at 60," Stolpe says. "But it helped free me from my addiction. Now I'm 75, and I love my hobby.” For Stolpe, the best way out is simple: "Find a passion that's free." A perfect summary of the Homeless University.

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