Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
After clearing a tent city in its most famous park, Berlin is trying to push migrants to leave. Is the approach realistic or fair?
Clearing homeless people off the streets and out of parks may make cities look tidier to the powers that be, but what happens to rough sleepers when they’re forced to move on?
This is a question Berlin is currently grappling with, after the high-profile eviction of homeless people from a tent camp in the city’s Tiergarten Park on Monday. Akin to a shanty springing up in Washington’s National Mall or New York’s Central Park, this tent encampment in the very heart of Berlin has been a subject of intense public attention in recent months. Apparently (if not exclusively) occupied mainly by homeless migrants from Eastern member states of the E.U., the camp captured the public’s attention after a 60-year-old woman was killed nearby in September, prompting calls for action.
Now that the squatters have been evicted, their next destination might possibly involve a ticket back to their country of origin. That’s because recently, Berlin boroughs have adopted an unusual solution to homeless migrants: They’ve been paying them to go home.
Last year, the state sent 110 E.U. migrants back from Berlin to their country of residence, with the funds provided by the borough in which they were sleeping. A policy that has continued into this year, the idea is supposedly to give migrants who have been struggling to find work an easier way of getting back to a roof over their heads. It’s been adopted partly because camps like the one in Tiergarten have sprung up all over Berlin, as people on the social hierarchy’s bottom rung struggle to find affordable accommodation.
In October, smaller encampments have also been evicted from along the railway tracks in East Berlin’s Ostkreuz and even next to the famous nightclub Berghain. Indeed in 2016, there were a total of 80 such evictions from outside spaces in Berlin alone. This is the sharp end of Berlin’s housing crisis. While the city is building relatively affordable housing faster than most, its rents are rising and its proportional share of rental housing (as opposed to owner-occupied homes) is falling.
Typically, this process is discussed publicly in terms of threats to the kind of struggling middle income people who make up the lion’s share of media consumers. CityLab, for example, has widely covered significant plans to prevent luxury conversions and preserve local small businesses. But while rising rents make it harder for the average Berliner to manage their monthly bills, people at the bottom of the city’s hierarchy are being pushed into far more desperate measures. Find yourself out of work, and without local connections—a state of affairs typical for many migrants—and Berlin is an ever-more difficult place to keep your head above water. Seeming to affirm that migrants have it hardest, half of the people sleeping rough in Berlin’s streets and parks are now estimated to be Polish citizens.
It might seem harsh, but ultimately reasonable, to fund people in this situation to voluntarily repatriate themselves when, as E.U. citizens, they have a legal right to be in Germany. The problem, however, is not just that people in this situation can return to Germany whenever they wish. It’s also that homeless people in Berlin who are willing or able to go home are often in a small minority. As Die Zeit notes, some migrants living in the Tiergarten encampment actually had regular, if low-paid jobs, but were simply unable to find somewhere affordable to live.
These people are not tapping into the German system for reasons of ease. Address-less non-German citizens in fact find it almost impossible to claim welfare benefits, and come in search of work. Often seeking jobs in relatively prosperous Berlin after being made homeless or unemployed in their own countries, they are in fact living, breathing evidence that the system has given up on meeting the needs of the people who participate in it, and that Berlin’s marginal, entry-level jobs are no longer necessarily sufficient to keep someone without a social safety net off the street.
In the meantime, Berlin’s boroughs are trying hard to make sure that conditions for migrants are harsh enough to send them packing. No one is quite sure how many homeless people live in Berlin (which itself suggests a city with tenuous control of the problem), with estimates ranging from 2,000 to 10,000. The city only has 135 year-round hostel spaces, with 2,000 more opened seasonally from November onwards once the really raw-boned weather kicks in. Some homeless people—such as those who don’t want to submit to their alcohol bans—may reject such accommodation, but it still seems clear that Berlin is trying to keep temporary hostel space to a bare minimum.
This is the proverbial stick compared to which the carrot of paying people to repatriate themselves seems somewhat meager. Paying fares home might flush a few desperate migrants off Berlin’s streets, but the grim reality remains that for many, their home countries are even more desperate places for them to live, and a makeshift tent in the German capital is currently the best option they have. And that’s why, for Tiergarten’s rough campers, their next destination has probably not involved a state-funded bus or plane ticket. Many have probably just moved on to somewhere more secluded elsewhere within the 500- acre park.