Everyone knows them but not really. When you want to try to get in a nap after work on the train home, they tear you from your dreams and confirm the fear you have in your bones as a longstanding fare evader. Time and again you think it’s a ticket inspector who’s about to say, “Tickets please!” But luckily the voice belongs to a Straßenfeger vendor trying to sell their street newspapers with their slogan of the week. These people can be very funny. And very needy. In many cases both. I’ve bought quite a few of the magazines. They are actually pretty funny, too, but never as charming as their salespeople.
Who are these vendors?
They sell the street paper, Straßenfeger, for EUR 1.50, of which they keep 90 cents; 60 cents go toward the next issue. A very good principle, as it spares the homeless their begging and ensures them their basic necessities.
I have always wanted to know who these people are, so I decided to find out. I called the Straßenfeger and the Motz (another street paper in Berlin) and asked if they needed help. Of course I was charging an open door. I was invited to an interview at Kaffee Bankrott on Prenzlauer Alle, and a couple days later I did my first shift in the Straßenfeger’s emergency shelter. That was five years ago, and it was a very exciting time.
I met many people, some better, some in passing; the vendors greeted me beamingly when I met them in the train, teasing me in Berliner dialect (“That looks much better that what you were wearing last night!”), and I spent the first day of Christmas with a Romanian family that shared their cookies and cigarettes with me.
I also got to know the structures behind the Straßenfeger. The association behind the magazine is called mob e.V. and offers far more than just the magazine. There is, obviously, an emergency shelter with 15 beds (at that time, now there are 31). In addition: the Frostschutzengel, or the “antifreeze angels,” social workers who offer legal advice and help them reintegrate into the social system, the Trödelpoint, a clothing store that stocks donations, and of course, Kaffee Bankrott.
Kaffee Bankrott is a very warm establishment. It is open all day long for the homeless and other guests. The food is highly affordable, and it is where the magazines are distributed to the vendors for 60 cents. But many come here just to spend time. It is also a crucial meeting point for homeless people.
My time at the Straßenfeger ended after three months because I took a full-time job. And for another reason: mob e.V. had to leave the building at Prenzlauer Allee 87 after 10 years because they – so goes the story – no longer fit into the neighborhood. It was negative 15 degrees Celsius that winter and it broke my heart.
A year later mob e.V. had found a new location, where the entire organization has been located for four years now: Storkower Straße 139d, a bit further off the beaten path. I met Rosi there, one of the ladies who used to work the counter at Kaffee Bankrott already back then and chatted with her and chef René about food.
Ten years ago, when Rosi got the job through the job center her only condition was not to cook. No matter: she became a kitchen assistant and didn’t think it was so bad. She always liked the mixed clientele. Both homeless people and other guests in need of social support come to Kaffee Bankrott. Everyone is welcome. And everyone has their own habits: “For example, that man back there with the hat is a newspaper vendor. He comes here to buy his papers. And if he has enough money leftover he buys himself something to eat or drinks a coffee, and then he leaves.”
Nobody came after the move initially since nobody knew there was a new café or where it was. That wasn’t only a problem for the homeless but also for the café. It isn’t subsidized; rather it is financed purely by food sales and furniture sold in the neighboring Trödelpoint. But word about the new opening had spread throughout the city.
One thing bothers Rosie about the new location. There’s a TV. Andreas Dölling donated it at the World Cup. “That changes things. Some people just sit there and stare at the screen instead of talking to each other. The TV is on all day. It’s a bit sad.”
Before starting work at Kaffee Bankrott, René used to cook haute cuisine. But then he realized: “A chef will always be exploited, so I say: I’m not playing along anymore.” And here? “Here you exploit yourself. But I’d rather cook for poor people than for rich people. They have the same right to decent food.”
The shopping for meals is done at Lidl, Penny, Kaufland, wherever the bargains are. The common principle in gastronomy, namely, the purchase price multiplied by 3.5, doesn’t work at Kaffee Bankrott, of course. A meal of potatoes, meat, and vegetables costs EUR 2.50 here! Sometimes that has to be compensated for with cheaper dishes like mustard eggs (Senfeier) throughout the week. Once a week they get a donation from the food bank, which tends to be dry good such as flour or noodles—no meat. Though people need meat for life on the street. “They really demand that.”
René always tries to create the week’s menu on the weekend. “But it’s usually moot by Wednesday. Because with our budget we often don’t get what I planned. We make a new menu every day anyway. But I think it’s important that we have something ready to offer for our guests at the beginning of the week.”
When asking René about the guests’ favorite dishes, he answered without missing a beat: “Sausage goulash and schnitzel. What Germans love to eat. And why should homeless people be so different to commoners and the filthy rich? They all like the same things. After all, we all grew up in the same society. And luckily nowadays you aren’t born homeless.”
And the kitchen equipment, is it OK?
Well, we could use a few things, but yes: Every kitchen is too small!