“We didn't come into the world as homeless people, after all”

Invented in Berlin: the first train station mission opened its doors in 1894. Two million people a year now seek advice at the 104 stations nationwide – including an increasing number of mentally ill and lonely people.

When he can't fall asleep, Gerhard T. on the way, alone through the big city, in the middle of the night. "I wake up every half hour and then I go to the station mission because the people here are nice and I can have a bit of a chat," says the 80-year-old.

The retiree is one of about two million people who visit one of the 104 station missions nationwide each year. The facility has been in existence for 125 years. It was invented in Berlin: The anniversary will be celebrated on Friday in the capital with a ceremony that will be attended by Federal Family Minister Franziska Giffey, Berlin's governing mayor Michael Muller (both SPD) and Archbishop Heiner Koch.

Founded at that time for women

Founded in 1894 at the Schlesischer Bahnhof, now Berlin's Ostbahnhof, it was "initially intended by women for women," says Gisela Sauter-Ackermann, Catholic executive director of the ecumenical Conference for Church Station Missions, the nationwide provider since 1910.

Civic women from the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities wanted to "offer a perspective on life" to young girls who had come to Berlin from rural areas on work trips shortly before the turn of the century and were victims of social and sexual exploitation.

"Everyone is welcome"

The idea caught on: four years later, a second facility was founded in Munich, and they now also exist in small and medium-sized cities. The costs are covered by state funds, church taxes and donations, one third each. Deutsche Bahn provides the rooms free of charge.

The clientele has long since changed: For a long time now, the "guests," as Sauter-Ackermann calls them, are no longer just young women – on the contrary, two-thirds are men, mostly between 27 and 65 years old. Gender, nationality, skin color or religious affiliation play no role at the facility. "Our target group is a colorful mix. Everyone is welcome."

From lost cell phones to homeless people

They include travelers "with a ticket" who board or change trains at the station and need helping hands, or have a problem such as a lost wallet. These account for about a quarter of all people seeking advice nationwide. And then there's the group of people "without a ticket" with existential worries, who are homeless, alcoholics, impoverished or desperate.

A cup of coffee, a counseling session: there are 400 full-time employees nationwide, plus 2.000 volunteers who have an open ear for concerns, whether it's a lost cell phone or being kicked out of their apartment.

Program also for 8.500 children

"We are guided by what people need," says Sauter-Ackermann – depending on the times and the social environment, that also changes. "Kids on tour," for example, is the name of a current program that adapts to the fact that "parents now live apart or grandparents are in another city".

Around 8.500 children, most of whom travel alone for the weekend, are accompanied each year by staff from the station mission.

Station at Ostbahnhof survived closure by the GDR

After the First and Second World Wars, for example, it was mainly returning soldiers or refugees who received counseling at the facility. In between, during the Nazi era, the station missions were closed down. "Rail transport was relevant to the war. They didn't want to leave that to a church ministry," says Sauter-Ackermann.

Until the division of Germany, the station mission then looked after the "intersector journeys" between East and West. Because of the "unjustified accusation of spying for the West," the East German station missions were banned by the GDR authorities in 1956 until the fall of the Wall – only the station at Ostbahnhof did not close its doors.

Many people have multiple social problems

In the West, guest workers arrived in the 1960s; since 2015/16, refugees have also arrived.

What's striking, he says, is that "for the last eleven years or so, the proportion of people who have several social problems at the same time has been increasing – for example, a mental illness, no job and no apartment," says Sauter-Ackermann. In 2008, their share accounted for 39.6 percent; in 2017, it was 55 percent.

Food and a place not to be chased away

He also said there are more and more lonely people, especially in metropolitan areas, who turn to the mission for help. "They mingle with the crowd here at the station, want to participate by observing," says the managing director. One of the people who no longer comes along is Hans-Jurgen Guthold. He has been living at Ostbahnhof for seven years, and worked as a geriatric nurse in a dementia ward for about 15 years before becoming homeless.

He used to have a home, a car. Twice a day, he now comes to the mission to get something to eat and just sit somewhere in peace – without anyone chasing him away. "It's not like we were born homeless," he says. It could affect anyone.

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Christina Cherry
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