Christmas in the city: down and out in Paris and Berlin

You might know him as Santa Claus, Sinterklaas or Father Christmas – but it’s unlikely that Saint Nicholas is going to be swinging by the stockings hung at the mantelpiece of many homeless people this year.

xmas homeless

A piece detailing the root causes of homelessness featured in the last issue of Concrete, and it is important to assess some of the more seasonal issues surrounding it. Christmas serves to enhance inequality – across the world, the rich put on displays of affluence and opulence, while those who cannot afford it are left to stare longingly at shop windows, feeling inadequate. Never is this more pronounced than for those without a home to go to.

Berlin’s ‘winter buses’ actively search out homeless people with nowhere to go, finding them shelter and food during the coldest months. It is at Christmastime that the number of people using Berlin’s soup kitchens soars – many of them victims of unemployment and being undercut by younger workers.

Public departments are usually responsible for providing welfare for the city’s most vulnerable people, but it is left to aid agencies and charities to run things like the winter bus and soup kitchens. The municipality, it seems, would rather spend its tax dollars on lavishly coating the high streets in glittering baubles and fairy lights to encourage people to spend, spend, spend for Christmas. Meanwhile the Berlin senate, citing monetary difficulties, indiscriminately cuts services like libraries, youth clubs and elderly day care centres.

Amongst all the glitz and light it would be easy to forget about the people who huddle in shop doorways to escape the wind, or about the almost one in five German children who live in poverty. Despite Germany’s perceived relative wealth in Europe, inequality between its rich and poor is increasing – and it’s a problem. Social workers agree that anger is rising with the way things are, and that soon things will explode: in a ‘crisis of capitalism’, as one puts it.

It is similar across Europe – while on the surface, countries may be ‘recovering’ from economic crisis, on closer inspection, an economic crisis of a different kind is taking place – one of gross division between the richest and poorest members of society. While many people will be tucking into their Christmas feasts this year, the 10,000 people estimated to be homeless in Berlin will not. What better emphasises such disparity than that?

Berliners cannot forget about the homeless ‘underclass’ in their city, however; a new ‘Down and Out’ tour run by homeless volunteers gives an insight for tourists and residents into the city in a way they don’t ever get to see it. Carsten Voss, who helps organise the tours, says of his time on the streets: “the worst thing was being invisible.” Perhaps things like this, juxtaposed against the blatant extravagance of Christmas, will prompt residents to take a look at their city with new eyes, and perhaps see people whom they ignored before.


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