Klaus Seilwinder takes out a photo of a playground that was his home for many years. The 15 people surrounding her in trendy Mitte take a closer look at the park as their tour guide recounts its past.
Seilwinder lived on the streets of the German capital from 2002 to 2009, struggling with alcoholism.
Today, he’s one of many who were homeless who took tourists on city guides, working for the non-profit organization Querstadtein, which loosely translates to “through town” .
Seilwinder’s tour takes its visitors through different parts of his life on the streets. The idea of the tours is to focus on the individual history of the guide, with the aim of building bridges and creating a dialogue.
“Too few conversations and meetings take place, on personal histories and socio-political contexts, on devaluation, but also on survival strategies of the homeless,” explains Adrijana Blatnik, spokesperson for Querstadtein.
Seilwinder was born in Frankfort on the Oder, a small town on the Polish border that was once part of East Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he worked as a seasonal farm worker and received unemployment benefits.
He then worked for a tobacco company from 1998 to 2002, but quit due to internal strife, he says.
With nowhere to go, he made it to Berlin and planned to spend his first few days near the rail mission at the city’s famous zoo station, which offers hot meals, clothing and support.
Seilwinder ended up living on the streets for about seven years. He describes to tourists how he survived without social security, health insurance and an ID card.
“I no longer existed for the state,” he says. He was happy when he found the playground in the heart of the city and slept in a small wooden cabin away from the park, a welcome shelter on cold nights, and protecting it from insects and rodents.
He isolated the space with folded boxes. “For a homeless person, it’s a luxury,” says Seilwinder, referring to cold and windy nights with temperatures dropping below -15 ° C.
After a bad experience, he decided not to go back to a homeless shelter. Someone next to him who was addicted to drugs couldn’t find a luck, he says. “All the blood splashed on my face.
Seilwinder’s story is not unusual. Some 2,000 homeless people were registered on the city’s streets during Berlin’s first homelessness census in January 2020.
The actual number is probably much higher, says Barbara Breuer, spokesperson for the Berlin City Mission.
The Ministry of Labor only gives nationwide estimates, indicating that around 678,000 people were homeless in Germany in 2018.
The country distinguishes between people who do not have housing secured by a rental or property contract and those who sleep in public spaces such as parks, gardens, metro stations, basements or construction sites. Only the latter are considered homeless.
For Seilwinder, the turning point came when he woke up one morning to find a little girl watching him. She lived in one of the apartments facing the playground and later brought him breakfast.
Since then, his family has been part of his life.
The next stop on the tour is an orange trash can. “Life on the streets is a struggle for survival,” he says. It meant picking up empty bottles.
The German bottle deposit system aims to encourage recycling. Buyers can return glass and plastic bottles to stores for a maximum of 25 cents (RM 1.20).
Seilwinder says he could have survived on € 5 (RM24) a day had he not been addicted to alcohol and cigarettes. In fact, he sometimes walked 50 km a day to find bottles.
“There is a lot of competition in Berlin and a lot of people are claiming certain areas and defending them,” he says. One day he ended up in the hospital after someone hit him on the head with a bottle.
While his days of sleeping outdoors are over, some habits remain. Seilwinder always checks each meter for change.
He managed to get off the streets in the winter of 2009, when an old friend took him to his apartment and told him he had four months to organize his papers and money and find accommodation.
With this help and the support of her “new family”, Seilwinder made the transition and has been sober for nine years.
“I have the impression that it is a world parallel to Berlin of which you are aware but with which you have no point of interaction,” said Marie, one of the participants, after the city tour.
Seilwinder says, “Every tour I do is follow-up therapy for me. It reminds me of the shit I went through that I don’t want to end up there again.” – dpa