“Our hope is to offer people a lifeline and, at least for this period, a fixed bed to sleep in and three meals a day. While they’re staying in the hostel, no one needs to worry about having enough to eat,” Strauss says. “Staff [at the hostel] have said that for many, it’s an enormous relief not to have to search for a safe place every night.”
At present, there are no recorded cases of COVID-19 among Berlin’s homeless population, but that hasn’t stopped officials at the hostel from taking precautions. Everyone entering must undergo a full physical examination, which also helps identify other potentially untreated conditions. Medical staff, social workers, and resources for those struggling with substance abuse issues are available. In order to avoid crowding, officials decided to limit the number of guests to 200, with a maximum of two guests per room. In addition, another 150 beds at a Kältehilfe shelter in a former office building in Pankow will offer extended stays and full board.
“It quickly became clear that this was the right thing to do,” Marcus Hirschberg, a spokesperson for the non-profit German Youth Hostel Association. “Our organization’s mission is about working together, tolerance, and standing in solidarity with others regardless of their religion or nationality.” Previously, the organization offered space for another vulnerable population. During the height of the refugee crisis 2015 and 2016, a number of hostels opened their doors to incoming asylum-seekers. “Right now, we have the unique opportunity to offer accommodations to Berlin’s homeless, since all of our hostels are closed and there are no tourists,” Hirschberg says.
Berlin is hardly the only place that has the potential to benefit from this model. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than half a million people in the United States experienced homelessness in 2019, a 2.7% increase over the previous year. California, where the rate of homelessness shot up by 16.4%, saw the country’s first death among the population due to the virus on March 16.
Currently, cities are scrambling to find solutions to the situation. Los Angeles and El Paso have set up public handwashing stations, while Las Vegas forced homeless residents to sleep in a parking lot painted with spaces six feet apart after local shelter closed.
At present, New York, the domestic epicenter of the pandemic, has roughly 100,000 empty hotel rooms and nearly 80,000 homeless inhabitants. Multiple hotels in New York have already volunteered to provide space for medical personnel and noncritical COVID-19 patients. There have been calls for others to create quarantine zones in order to reduce the risk of infected patients spreading the disease to their loved ones. Offering hygienic facilities and safe places to socially distance to even a fraction of the city’s homeless population could save lives and help flatten the curve.
In Berlin, the program is off to a promising start. Over 100 individuals showed up within the first few days, and more have registered. Although Hirschberg cautions against raising false hopes at this early stage, so far the hostel is successfully delivering a much-needed respite.
“Every city and community must decide how to handle this for themselves, but here in Berlin, we have chosen this way,” Strauss says. “We cannot afford to only look after those with apartments and jobs, even if they are also suffering right now. We have a moral obligation not to lose sight of the homeless during this crisis.”