Protests follow eviction of Berlin’s largest homeless camp
Critics allege ulterior motives as camp cleared before onset of freezing weather
by Tim Redfern
During the night of Friday, 5 February, police and social workers evicted the residents of Berlin’s largest homeless persons camp at Rummelsburger Bucht in Lichtenberg. Ostensibly carried out for safety purposes in anticipation of the imminent cold snap, the sudden eviction prompted criticism from homelessness services and protests by activist groups over the weekend.
The eviction of took place after dark and without prior notice, with the result that not all residents were present at the time to pack their belongings. According to activist sources, residents were given only one hour to pack before buses transported them, together with their belongings and animals, to nearby emergency accommodation.
Despite initial promises that the camp would not be demolished, workers were busy over the weekend and on Monday tearing up the remaining makeshift shelters with excavator machines.
Approximately half of the residents accepted the offer to relocate. Of those who did not, most remain presumably on the streets, unable to return to the huts and tents where they had previously sheltered. According to various sources, their reasons for rejecting the offered emergency accommodation include distrust of the state, drug and alcohol dependencies, or uncertainty about ongoing accommodation options or the conditions at the shelter. Their welfare remains uncertain.
Berlin Senate Rushes to Protect Homeless Population Before Cold Snap
The hurried eviction was carried out the night before the anticipated cold snap, which has seen temperatures across Germany plunge to as low as -12 degrees Celsius. Subzero temperatures remain forecast in Berlin for at least the next ten days.
The deputy major of Lichtenberg, Kevin Hönicke (SPD), defended the eviction as an important measure to protect the residents before the onset of the freezing temperatures: “Due to the weather with cold, snow and moisture, the situation is very dangerous. We can no longer guarantee the safety of life and limb for the people here,” he said at a press conference during the eviction.
The threat to Berlin’s homeless population posed by the cold snap saw a coordinated attempt by the Berlin Senate and Municipalities to relocate as many homeless persons as possible into emergency accommodation on Friday. The Senate Department for Integration, Labour and Social Affairs affirmed that “whoever needs a bed will get one,” announcing that 1,090 beds were available at emergency shelters across the city. Meanwhile, outreach teams of social workers scoured the city in buses looking for rough sleepers.
Those residents evicted from the camp who accepted the offer of alternate accommodation were brought to a heated hall behind the Frankfurter Allee S-Bahn Station, where 100 beds were prepared. According to the Berliner Morgenpost, the residents were permitted on Saturday to move to a hostel on Boxhagener Straße, Friedrichshain, where they are permitted to remain until April.
Left-Wing Demonstrators and Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe React to Eviction
Whether the eviction was purely motivated by the weather remains hotly contested by supporters of the camp’s inhabitants and left-wing activist groups.
The site of the camp, located between Rummelsburger Bucht and Ostkreuz Station, has been designated for the construction of an aquarium theme park since 2016, leading many supporters of the homeless community to allege ulterior motives behind the eviction. Although the site was originally public land, the former SPD-CDU government sold the land to a conglomerate of investors in 2016 for well below its market value as part of a plan to develop the area through private investment. Despite major opposition from the local community, investors announced plans to build a “Coral World” aquarium on the site, with only the camp standing in the way of construction.
On Saturday, the Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe, a major homelessness support service, tweeted “cold weather support or forced eviction? We were there and the answer is clear. No info where the people can sleep tomorrow. According to a police officer, ‘the camp will be flattened tomorrow.’”
Supporters of the homeless community called for a spontaneous demonstration, assembling in front of the tent encampment on Saturday morning. Activists asserted that many of the residents had been unable to understand what was happening at the time of the eviction, due to a lack of translators – a claim rejected by the Lichtenberg Municipality, which asserts that translators were present. On Sunday, a larger protest of approximately 300 people started in Rigaer Straße in Friedrichshain and proceeded towards the site while shouting anti-fascist slogans.
Between Capital and Freezing Cold
The eviction of the camp occurred in the context of a citywide effort to transition homeless persons into emergency accommodation, a point that should not be ignored. In the face of a cold snap such as this one, efforts to secure the safety of homeless persons - including those who are reluctant to move – are necessary. The failure to do so would have quite likely seen the deaths of many camp inhabitants within a week.
However, serious questions remain about the manner in which the eviction was carried it out, and the lack of alternatives provided to those who felt unable to relocate to the short-term emergency accommodation offered to them. The decision to immediately destroy the shelters in the camp, many of them still containing the possessions of the former residence, is also incomprehensible. For those who felt unable to take up the offer of alternative accommodation, the destruction of their homes during a freezing cold snap leaves them in a far more dangerous position than before.
Finally, the proposed construction plans for the site raise uneasy questions about what other motives were at work here. No doubt a group of investors are overjoyed now that the site of their proposed amusement park has finally be cleared. To what extent this influenced the authorities in last Friday’s eviction is unclear, but the speed with which workers moved in to demolish the site, despite the risk it posed to the evicted residents, gives us ample reason to be suspicious.