Cold relief in pandemic times: corona makes people shiver

The pandemic complicates the conditions in the cold aid: The number of sleeping places is less the problem than the lack of offers during the day.

Deacon Wolfgang Willsch and a helper in the kitchen of the parish of St. Pius Photo: Tina Eichner

When St. Pius’ emergency overnight shelter opens at seven in the evening, a few men with mouth-nose protection are already waiting in the dark courtyard next to the Friedrichshain church. A staff member unlocks the outside toilet of the old rectory, and one by one the men step forward to wash their hands and take a non-contact temperature. Then they descend the steep stairs into the basement for coffee and hot food.

"In the past, a few guests always helped with the cooking," says Deacon Wolfgang Willsch. They sat in the kitchen, talked and laughed. "Now everything has to be strictly separated." Only the cook and a colleague, who serves the food through a hatch covered with Plexiglas, are allowed in the kitchen. The guests in the dining room each sit at a table by themselves, a maximum of ten at a time, and after half an hour they are aired out for the next ones – cold relief under Corona conditions. "Everything is much colder, much more distant," Willsch regrets.

On November 1, the official cold aid season began. There were already a few hundred emergency overnight places in October, but since ten days ago, the winter aid supported by welfare organizations and church communities has been in full swing, 1,000 places are available citywide. Because of the pandemic, all facilities had to present hygiene concepts and reduce places in order to be able to maintain distances. The increased costs – the personnel costs remain the same – are covered by the financial administration.

Nevertheless, to get to the target number of 1,000 beds, the Senate Department for Social Affairs has signed contracts with three hotels: the Sezer Hotel in Schoneweide (70 places), the Pfefferbett Hostel in Prenzlauer Berg (90 places) and a small guesthouse in Friedrichshain with 25 places, within walking distance of St. Pius. "The owner doesn’t want the name in the newspaper," Willsch says. He’s afraid of losing his image with the "normal" clientele – which there won’t be for a while this winter, he says.

The offer Since 1989, church congregations and welfare associations have been organizing cold aid as an unbureaucratic overnight accommodation option. Today, numerous initiatives and associations offer overnight accommodations, food distribution, daytime get-togethers, counseling, etc. At night, a cold bus and a warmth bus drive to supply people on the street or to bring them to shelters.

Who wants to help The heat bus can be reached daily from 6 p.m. (030 600 300 1010), the cold bus from 9 p.m. (0178 523 5838). In addition, there is the cold aid app. The first count in January came to just under 2,000 homeless people. (taz)

The boarding house is co-maintained by the helpers of St. Pius. It looks clean, has modern furnishings: 3-star all-world standard. "Many of our guests are pleasantly surprised that they are accommodated so well," says Sister Martha, a 45-year-old nun. Christian Becker, one of the volunteers, has noticed otherwise: "People have a certain inhibition in the hotel because it’s rather chic." And not as "communal" as usual in emergency shelters. The guesthouse is not yet full, eleven guests came on Monday evening. That corresponds roughly to the approximately 65 percent occupancy rate that the cold aid coordination office has registered overall so far. This can change quickly if the weather remains cold.

The few beds in St. Pius, on the other hand, are already occupied, "we are full," says the deacon. In the "scene", the emergency overnight stay, which like many only accepts men, is well known: There are regular customers for years, and many come every evening since the beginning of October. "It is, after all, the goal of the cold aid to bind the guests as firmly as possible to one place" – especially now in the Corona time. Normally there are 11 beds in 3 rooms on the second floor of the community center, now only five men can sleep there. In addition, there are three beds (otherwise ten) in the neighboring parish of St. Nicholas. Plus eight small living containers of the brand "My Molo", known as hipster lodges at festivals, which are located in the courtyard next to the rectory. The 1-person living containers have been provided to the parish for years for cold weather relief. "In the pandemic, they’re worth their weight in gold," Willsch says happily. "And the guests prefer to sleep in them than in the house." Willsch currently keeps two containers free at all times – in case a guest has a fever or other corona symptoms.

Willsch will soon have to adjust the hygiene procedure again. Last Friday, the first 5,000 PoC antigen tests were delivered to cold relief facilities that have medical staff on site. That is about half of all facilities, according to a spokesperson for Social Senator Elke Breitenbach (Linke) at the request of the taz. These could test thereby immediately daily their guests and weekly their personnel. Within 15 minutes, the test should show a result. If someone is positive, the responsible health department must be notified – if necessary, the sick guest is then sent to the quarantine facility on Lehrter Strasse.

Willsch is not yet sure exactly how this will work, for example, by transporting patients. In any case, he still has to have volunteers trained in the handling of the tests. However, it seems a bit much for him – with regular customers – to come to the guests with this on a daily basis. "It’s important to keep a balance," he thinks. Of course, everyone has to abide by hygiene and safety rules, "but we don’t want to scare people away, either."

Overall, Willsch says, emergency overnight stays have adjusted quite well to Corona by now. Although the cold aid "took a hit" from the pandemic, it hasn’t collapsed: "Mainly because of the staff, who just kept going." His main concern is that there are far fewer day services for the homeless than usual at the moment. For Jens Aldag from the cold aid coordination office, the lack of "indoor places to stay and warm up" is also the biggest problem at the moment. He estimates that the offer at the moment is 50 to 75 percent less than usual.

Normally, there are various homeless cafes, meeting places, soup kitchens, clothing stores during the day – often with low-threshold counseling included. However, many services could not be maintained in accordance with hygiene regulations, for example for structural reasons, and others were moved outside in the summer, such as food distribution, which is no longer possible due to the weather. The problem was foreseeable, Willsch says. "But the politicians have slept through it since the summer."

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