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Homeless guide tourists

Jennifer Fraczek / sstAugust 13, 2013

Sightseeing without visiting Berlin's famous Museum Island and the legendary Brandenburg Gate: A tour provides tourists with a unique viewpoint - that of the homeless.

A man in Berlin asking for money (photo: Andres Benedicto/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Traffic noise, the subway rattles through the city, cars honk here and there. It's a hustle and bustle at the Nollendorfplatz in Berlin's Schöneberg district. The square is an important traffic hub and also rich in history. On your everyday guided tour you'd probably learn that it was designed by landscape architect Josef Lenné and named after a battlefield.

But that's not something tour guide Carsten Voss would mention. The "sights" he points to are park benches, bottle redemption machines and a grocery store that's open 24/7. Voss describes the city from the homeless' perspective. He himself used to live on the streets, but he has slowly started to return to a regular life.

Up to 4,000 homeless in Berlin

According to estimates, there are up to 4,000 homeless people in Berlin. Some can be easily spotted. But with many others, there's no way of telling they live on the streets, because they don't fulfill the stereotype of a shabby hobo. Most citizens or tourists don't even notice, or they don't pay attention to them.

That was one reason for Berlin-based Sally Ollech and Katharina Kühn to initiate the project "Querstadtein." Just like in cities like Copenhagen or London, Berlin now offers city tours focusing on the homeless. The idea is to help overcome prejudices and reservations.

Carsten Voss (center) during a tour (photo: DW/ Jennifer Fraczek)
Carsten Voss (center) points visitors to another side of Berlin: It's the perspective of homeless peopleImage: DW/J.Fraczek

Guide Voss has played a crucial role in developing the tour. He mostly tours Schöneberg, a district that's not very hip but very open-minded. It's where many homeless people gather. Not that long ago, Voss was one of them.

While touring the city, the 54-year-old tells his story: He used to work as a fashion event manager in Berlin, until stress got the best of him. "It was a typical burn-out situation," he said, adding that he made many mistakes during that time. He withdrew himself from everything, "I didn't want to listen; I didn't want to see anyone; I didn't react to anything anymore."

That's when he ended up in a psychiatric ward. His unemployment compensation expired, and he didn't want to be on social welfare. When he ran out of money, he ended up in the streets. That was some two years ago. Now, he has an apartment and volunteers at a shelter. Soon he is going to start a training course on how to raise funds for social causes.

Where to keep warm

Some of his tour spots are also mentioned in guide books: Bahnhof Zoo, for instance, or the Protestant Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. But with Voss, these sights get a different meaning: At Bahnhof Zoo, he points to a grocery store that's open on Sundays which is unusual for Germany - it's where the homeless line up to redeem their empty bottles they have collected on the streets. And it's not the church that's the main attraction for them, but the shopping centers nearby where they can keep warm at night and during winter time.

A man collects empty bottles in Berlin (photo: Wolfgang Kumm dpa/lbn)
Homeless flock to grocery stores because they are able to get cash for the bottles they have collectedImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Other important places are shelters where they can turn to during the day. It's where they can shower, eat, wash their clothes, use telephones, the Internet, newspapers, books and lockers. They can also get advice if there are problems with the authorities.

Voss only talks about those shelters, but he doesn't take visitors there. He doesn't want to display people's misery.

Homeless increasingly turn to Berlin

Social help for homeless people is quite good in Berlin, Voss said. That's one reason why many homeless turn to Berlin. "There's a prevailing mood in the city with a positive stance towards its homeless - 'Every man must go to heaven in his own way.'" That's part of Berlin's way of life, he added, but he also says he doesn't want to glorify it.

At the end of the tour, Voss takes up the founders' idea to overcome reservations towards the homeless. Even though visitors know much more about their lives now, there's still the question of how to deal with them.

"Look them in the eye - don't look away," Voss said. "Just by looking at me, people were able to help. It's good to see that people notice you and don't just push you away." Voss asks for attentiveness. "It's an old-fashioned term, but it fits quite nicely."