How volunteering with Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe made me feel like a real Berliner for the first time
by Lucie Heath
As a new expat in Berlin it is often easy to feel like an outsider looking in. You moved to the city feeling like you were moving to an utopia – the rent is cheap, the food is good and the clubs pump a steady stream of techno music from Friday night until Monday morning. Yet in reality, it’s actually pretty difficult to move to a new city when you only know a handful of people and your level of German is nicht sehr gut.
Last week I wrote about how volunteering is the perfect way to settle into the city, so as a new Berliner myself I decided that it was time to test this theory by embarking on a mission to volunteer for as many English friendly organisations I could find (aka all the ones the lovely people at vostel have went out and found for me).
The first organisation on my list was Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe, a really cool non-profit that twice a week travels around the city in order to hand out food and clothing to the homeless population of Berlin.
“As you walk around the city it is certainly difficult to ignore the fact that almost every bridge and U-bahn station serves as a temporary home to several people”
A day of volunteering with the organisation begins at 2 o’clock in Wedding where you help prepare food for the tour and then ends at around 9:30 at Kottbusser Tor after you have helped distribute food and clothing at 3 different locations around the city (or at a bar in Wedding if you stick around for the clean up).
Now homelessness is of course a really complex and difficult issue, especially in Berlin where it is estimated that up to 4000 people are without a permanent residence.¹ As you walk around the city it is certainly difficult to ignore the fact that almost every bridge and U-bahn station serves as a temporary home to several people who are attempting to shelter from the unforgiving Berlin winter.
“Instead of leaving the experience feeling guilty and frustrated, I found myself experiencing a greater sense of inclusion than I have felt since moving to Berlin.”
Yet volunteering with Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe was much more than a way to make myself feel better about awkwardly avoiding eye contact with the homeless people at Warschauer Strasse. In fact, instead of leaving the experience feeling guilty and frustrated, I found myself experiencing a greater sense of inclusion than I have felt since moving to Berlin.
This is because at its core, volunteering is about meeting and hanging out with a really good group of people, and Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe was no exception. In the space of a few hours I met students, expats, travellers and people who have lived in Berlin their entire life. Spending the afternoon making hundreds of sandwiches with these people we talked about everything from German food to how excited we were for Sisyphos to re-open in spring.
Annoyingly, I only had enough time to stay for the first stop of the actual tour, hence why I don’t want to preach about what I have ‘learned’ or pretend I have a right to provide any commentary on the situation of homelessness in Berlin. What I can say is that my short time on the tour gave me a much-needed push to start taking my German learning more seriously. Volunteering with Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe is a great way to talk to and understand the people that live on the streets of Berlin, but sadly these interactions are pretty limited when you are stuck at a table dumbly repeating ‘Fleisch oder Käse.’
Overall, despite some language barriers, my afternoon of volunteering was a really positive experience. I’d happily spend all my Wednesday afternoons making some sandwiches, travelling to different parts of the city and hanging out with some cool expats and Germans – all while helping out the homeless population of Berlin!
If you want to volunteer with Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe then you can register on the vostel website. Or if you want to learn more about the issue of homelessness in Berlin, another interesting thing to check out is the organization querstadtein who offer tours of city ran by formerly homeless people.
Lucie is originally from Scotland and has recently moved to Berlin after completing a degree in History and Politics at the University of Edinburgh. Aside from working as a digital marketing intern, she is currently spending her time trying to assimilate into Berlin by volunteering and drinking a lot of Club Mate.