How the pandemic is sharpening the plight of Berlin’s homeless women

"I never thought it would happen to me," said Petra, who found herself living on the street in Berlin as the pandemic gripped Europe's top economy one year ago.

How the pandemic is sharpening the plight of Berlin's homeless women
Homeless people sleep in tents under a bridge in Berlin's Tiergarten. Photo: DPA

Petra’s story reflects the struggle of the estimated 2,500 homeless women in the German capital, who have become even more vulnerable in the coronavirus outbreak.

It is dusk at “Evas Obdach” (Eva’s Shelter) in Neukölln, Berlin’s largest district and one of its most ethnically diverse.

After a full day in the winter cold, women carrying heavy bags or dragging overladen shopping trolleys behind them file in, visibly weary.

They can get a warm meal here, take a shower and spend the night, all in a comparably safe environment.

Petra, who is in her 60s, takes a seat.

“Look how nice it is here — it’s really a place that’s made for us. They even have different kinds of tea,” she says in a soft voice, cracking a hesitant smile.

‘Corona put me on the street’

She is one of the few women willing to talk a bit about her story, on condition only her first name be used.

Petra had arrived in Berlin last March, at the beginning of Germany’s first shutdown.

She was counting on staying in a small hotel but was refused a room because coronavirus restrictions outlawed overnight stays except for business travellers.

READ ALSO: How homeless people in Germany are being supported during the coronavirus crisis

She ended up at a city mission and has been bouncing from shelter to shelter ever since.

Asked why she moved to the capital and how much money she had when she did, Petra is not very forthcoming with answers but she’s sure of one thing: “Corona put me on the street.”

“I was trained as a chemist, I worked in restaurants, I had a career… I never thought this would happen to me,” she said.

Official statistics about the number of people in Germany rendered homeless during the pandemic and its ensuing economic crisis are hard to come by.

“Nothing indicates at the moment that it has risen sharply,” said Werena Rosenke, director of the BAG association which groups several homeless aid organisations.

“But you may start to see it after the pandemic, when eviction orders — which are currently suspended — are carried out,” she told AFP.

Advocates say that reliable statistics about affected people are sorely lacking.

In Berlin, a voluntary census in early 2020 — before the Covid-19 outbreak — counted nearly 2,000 people without homes, but charity groups put the number far higher, at between 6,000 and 9,000 including around 2,500 women.

‘Sense of shame’

Natalie Kulik, the founder of Evas Obdach, said their unique plight is often invisible to policy-makers and the society at large.

Women try to avoid the street as long as possible, even if it means enduring violence in their marriage or turning to prostitution to pay the rent, she said.

        A homeless person holding a sign reading ‘no home, no work, hungry, thank you.’ Photo: DPA

And if they end up failing to keep a roof over their heads, they often try to hide their situation, “paying particular attention to their appearance,” Kulik said, blaming “a sense of shame”.

“The street is dangerous for them,” she said.

Protection in a mixed shelter is often paid for with sexual favours.

“Most of our guests here would never admit to being homeless,” she said. Genevieve, a talkative Frenchwoman in her 50s spending the night at the shelter, is just one example.

READ ALSO: Number of people without a home rises in Germany

“I pay my rent but I cannot return to my place because my neighbours harass me,” said Genevieve, who has lived in Berlin for 20 years, many of them alone since her divorce.

“People think I’m crazy when I tell my story,” she said.

Survival strategy

The pandemic compounds the psychological stress faced by homeless women, whose mental state is often fragile, Kulik said.

“You see some creating their own worlds — a survival strategy” that makes them resistant to help.

The restrictions under the Covid-19 shutdown have generally worsened the precarious living conditions of all homeless people, charity groups agree.

Income sources such as collecting deposit bottles or panhandling have dried up as people stay home.

Shelters themselves have had to cut the number of available beds to accommodate social distancing.

This winter, the Berlin government expanded temporary housing facilities by renting empty hotels, spokesman Stefan Strauss told AFP, adding that a coronavirus vaccination programme for the homeless should begin “soon”.

But with the arrival of spring, there is a risk that “all the additional assistance will disappear”, warned Anett Leach of the charity association Klik, which helps young people with housing and social difficulties.

Member comments

  1. Is it really necessary to make everything a gendered issue now? Everything in this article applies to men, women, and people of any other gender for that matter. Is it so terrible to just talk about the effect of a human story on human beings. For once?

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EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

Due to high Covid infection numbers throughout the summer, it’s now possible to get a sick note from a doctor over the phone again for some illnesses. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

What’s happened?

In spring 2020, German authorities changed the law so that people with a mild upper respiratory tract illness, such as the common cold, were able to get an incapacity to work certificate or AU-Bescheinigung by simply calling and speaking to their GP.

The rule was extended several times and finally reversed on June 1st this year due to falling infection figures. Since then people have had to go back to the practice – or do a video call if the doctor’s office has that system in place – to get a sick note.

Now, due to a decision by the Joint Federal Committee, the regulation has been reintroduced and patients can call their GP again for a sick note.

Can I get a sick note over the phone for any illness?

No. As before, the regulation only applies to patients suffering from a mild upper respiratory tract illness. Though Covid has not explicitly been named in the announcement, it seems that it is intended to be covered by the regulation.

If the doctor is convinced that the patient is unfit for work after a telephone consultation, then they can issue a sick note for up to seven days.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The changes around doctor’s notes in Germany you should know

If the symptoms persist after seven days, the certificate can be extended once more for another week.

Why now?

According to the Chairman of the G-BA, Josef Hecken, the regulation has been introduced now as a response to rising Covid numbers and in anticipation of the cold and flu season in the coming months: “We want to avoid full waiting rooms in doctors’ offices and the emergence of new infection chains,” he said.

The telephone sick leave rule is a simple, proven and uniform nationwide solution for that, he said. The rule is also necessary because video consultation hours are not yet available everywhere.

What else should I know?

The health insurer DAK is calling for telephone sick leave in the case of light respiratory diseases to be made possible on a permanent basis in Germany. DAK’s CEO Andreas Storm said that this should “not always be up for debate, because it has proven itself.” 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Germany

The social association VdK also welcomed the reintroduction of the rule. The VdK’s President Verena Bentele said that the regulation would help to protect high-risk groups in particular from potential infections.

What are the rules to know about sick notes in Germany?

Germany has a strict system in place. If you are sick, you need to give your employer a Krankmeldung (notification of sickness) before the start of work on the first day (of your illness).

However, you also need to hand in a Krankschreibung (doctor’s note) on the fourth day of your illness. Some employments contracts, however, require you to submit a sick not earlier than the fourth day so check with your boss or HR on that point.