Berlin and Beyond: Alcoholics, not so anonymous | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.10.2018
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Berlin and Beyond: Alcoholics, not so anonymous

For many, giving money to a homeless drunk is taboo. But what if they were given money and a home where they could keep drinking? Tamsin Walker met some men who've been given just that.

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WorldLink: Drinking at home

Apparently, my local underground station is Berlin's new hotspot for homeless drunks who steal with abandon from the nearby supermarket and use the lobby of an adjoining medical center as a toilet for all their needs. Such, at least, was the word in a report I read last week. Things are so bad, the report continued, that the two establishments have pooled resources to hire security guards to man the situation.

I've seen the men in black, if not the alleged Dickensian, albeit contemporary, grime and squalor. Admittedly, the area in question has its rough edges, but for some of the familiar faces there, it's served as home for more years than either the supermarket or the medical center have existed.

Depending on who you speak to, there are now between 6,000 and 20,000 people who live on the streets of Berlin. The majority are men; many of them heavy drinkers. It's not a combination that tends to open hearts. Or doors. In fact, there's only one place in the entire city, and indeed the country, that has welcomed then in, liquor and all.

Humble beginnings

The Nostitzstrasse shelter was started 20 years ago by a vicar who wanted to put a roof over the heads of the men he used to see boozing on the central green strip of a busy road.

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What began as a relatively informal undertaking for a handful of hardened drinkers has become a well-structured, state- and church-financed home for 46 male alcoholics. It's also become an example of how the city could go some way to dealing with the aching problem of homelessness — and all that it implies — because it works.

Bright blue façade of a modern building

A bright and welcoming entrance to a home with a heart on Berlin's Nostitzstrasse

In providing the men who live there with food, companionship, clothing, guidance and social welfare benefits, and in offering an environment where their alcoholism is tolerated, some manage to reduce their consumption enough to do part-time voluntary work, or even kick the habit altogether.

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One of them is Martin, a 63-year-old Berliner who's been sober for almost two and a half years. He doesn't want to leave his room that offers a sweeping view over the street where the idea for the shelter was first born — largely because he says he doesn't cope well alone, but also because living with alcoholics is a constant reminder of the ruin he has managed to escape.

A homeless person in blankets, surrounded by bags

There are no exact figures for the number of homeless in Berlin, but all indications show the number is going up

Ruin is the bare bones of what alcohol abuse causes. And the shelter goes some way to countering that by offering those on the absolute fringes of society a way in from the cold — in more ways than one. And in so doing, it generates acceptance of people with a condition that, whether we like to admit it or not, affects millions all over the world and untold thousands in Berlin alone.

The Nostitzstrasse shelter is genuinely part of the neighborhood. Residents and businesses donate food, clothing and money, and on those occasions when any of the men are found looking lost or too far gone, there's a good chance a local will bring them back to the home. To their home.

Which, though just an underground ride away from the alleged new hotspot for homeless alcoholics, is a million miles from the supermarket where a security guard now mans the door.

In Berlin and beyond, British-born Tamsin Walker takes a closer look at some of the quirks and perks of life in Germany, which has been her home for almost 20 years. She tweets as @TamsinkateW

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