SELF-DETERMINED LIVING IS NEVER OUT OF FASHION
Habersaathstraße in conversation with the AWC team.
On January 26, 2022, the residents of Habersaathstraße, the building squatted in January 2021 in Berlin after being vacant for ten years, met with the AWC team and shared insights from their example of social fabrication and housing organization. In the living room of one of the flats transformed into homes for many who had been homeless, a conversation unfolded on political accountability for the residents and the municipality of the city.
AWC: Tell us about your involvement in the Habersaathstraße project.
PAUL: So I am part of a group of people, inhabitants and citizens, who are involved in organizing and keeping the structure of the housing project.
LEN: I live here, and I am glad to be part of the project, to have my own safe space where I can just close my door and be with myself. My friends put me in contact with a person who organized here, and that person registered me for a flat here.
AWC: You have a really good atmosphere here. Very friendly environments. And it also seems relationally wise with the city.
L: Like not everything is perfect here, something works, but also all of a sudden there can be conflicts. But what we have now, and for the status we have, the project works pretty well.
P: In all kinds of housing solutions conflicts can happen, it doesn’t matter the political orientation or level of education. Here there are people of different ages, scenes or even political backgrounds, mental and addiction problems, so it's going to be still a lot of effort to make this work. But many people were very happy to move here or they say that what they are experiencing is something special. We try to coordinate through assemblies.
AWC: How often do you have assemblies?
L: We have different groups for maintenance, but also awareness groups, organizing groups that are structuring the house rules, and active groups for those who have more of an agenda or want to raise political awareness. This week we will have two assemblies to agree on some points. But for example, I don't like when it's one person who decides, it’s not right to exclude people from the decision-making, especially people from lower classes. But in talking and listening to each other’s needs we can all live peacefully and in harmony like now, that is 100% better than living on the street.
P: The whole idea of this house can be compared to housing, first in the sense that there is no mandatory service. You don't have to accept social work, you don't have to go to rehab or be forced to do anything. But of course, it's a bit more radical at the same time because it also implies living together. So it's also community and so on, but it's not so easy for political ideas to offer a place to stay without any framing, because at the same time being in a community implies agreeing on some basic rules. And that's exactly the process that's now happening: to find the structure, and to consider what rules we accept from each other or the people who live here.
AWC: What's the demographic of people living here: young, elderly, families? Can you tell?
P: We have two types of flats in the house. One is composed of a living room and the kitchen and then you have a small room in the back, and the other one is the same but without the tiny room. So all apartments are basically one room, toilet, kitchen. So it's mostly people living alone, there are some couples and then I would say it's relatively mixed. I mean, we have a queer female floor, one louder, a party house, and one more silent in these three staircases.
AWC: Is the building also ethnically, culturally mixed?
P: It is mixed, here live a lot of people who are not German, we also have people of color, but we still aim to achieve more inclusivity. The project was mixed from the beginning, even before the squatting there were a lot of people invited to talk in front of the house. So there was that already to make a political statement. For example, Women in Exile were invited to an old manifestation to talk about the experiences of people seeking asylum.
L: Also some empty apartments were given to women because for them on the street it is harder, I think we have half men and half women, there is a proportion. Often in houses people are like, discriminating because of their gender or their sexuality, especially queers or women, but we want to prove that we can create a space for all lives.
AWC: How do you pay for electricity and facilities?
P: We are going to have to pay some and we are in a hurry to manage it. It's not gonna be much, but it's still a lot for people who collect bottles. There's a lot of people living here who are not eligible for an official status of unemployment, so this issue must be resolved soon.
L: When it comes to me I have unemployment money from the state, a privilege not everyone has here, but before I didn’t have a flat, and now that I have one I can pay the electricity, but we are working to find economic solutions for everyone.
AWC: Are you already thinking about looking for donations or a collective bank account or something?
P: Yeah, we have. So there is one association that is taking care of housing like a Hausverwaltung. And we have their account. We have already made a donation call on Twitter and so on. We'll have to push it a bit, we definitely don't have enough money for now, but some donations are coming in. When the mainstream press started to write about the house it was quite nice to see that many people came with donations, and we did get stuff like bed sheets and kitchen equipment and some furniture quite quickly. But these are things we don't need anymore. We need money and a more stable source of finances.
L: We need money, but also socks, appliances or food or like, the little things that everybody needs. I need socks.
AWC: Are there still a lot of people enquiring for a place to stay here?
P: This is something we are working on, we have a list, but that's a hard issue. We're not able to take anyone right now. Sometimes there are people who just come by and check the flats’ availability or to have a place for the night. But we cannot function as a shelter. Before the office was open 24/24h, but now all the residents have keys, so in the case of need we just help them to install the app with the shelters. It is very clear that this project alone is not going to solve homelessness in Berlin.
L: Also homeless people often don't know how to help other people who are also homeless. I can say I want to help others, but I am trying to get started with my life and try to be clean or to have therapy. Only when my life is better, can I help.
P: It's also important to say that the whole thing has a political aspect, we organize many protests. The landlord wants to demolish the building and so our project is still not completely secure. We do not only want to show that such a project is possible but we are also going to prevent this demolition!
AWC: Has it been the case that sometimes residents would bring in their friends to stay with them in solidarity or just friendship, so that they share the places?
P: Of course this can be a case, it's a bit delicate because we can’t take more people, but it's very unclear when it’s happening, when somebody's lived here like just a normal subletter. It's theoretically up to two months, but we have to be pretty strict on that too. People in the house are also afraid of being kicked out or having trouble with the municipality.
AWC: What's your agreement with the municipality?
P: They need to know who and how many people live here, it counts as accommodation for them. We were trying to get as close as possible to the normal tenant situation. So every flat will have their own electricity bills and contracts, ASOG Beschlagnahmung. The whole idea with this project was to say that there actually are a lot of completely usable empty apartments that are illegally empty. For example the owner of this building was not renting it to people but for movie shootings. But there's a necessity for housing, so, actually reappropriating this building should and could have come from the municipality itself. And that's also the political statement of this project: housing for everyone is possible. In Berlin there is this plan to completely get rid of homelessness by 2030, this building has been squatted twice and when we did it before Christmas and a pandemic the pressure was pretty big.
AWC: It would be important to report from the experience of successful squatting to share some statements, wishes, hopes, and the urgent needs and long-term perspectives of the residents.
L: We want to highlight that this is a leftist program allowing for everyone to have their space. It is important to give society the idea that every person, no matter if they live on the street, deserves respect - that people who have lost everything should be given a hand in order to make up their life.
P: The question is, why should such projects not exist? In society there is no idea suggesting that it can work - but one must show that it is possible. Self-organization was important from the beginning, because many people are traumatized not only by the street, but by what is offered to them as an alternative. For example, last year the mayor said there was a place for everyone in all the hostels. But most of the people who live here did not want to go there from the beginning, because it comes with severe restrictions. Especially the people who were evicted in the Rummelsburger Bucht, had sought this place and did not want to live where they are permanently controlled. It was important for everyone to have a private room for self-determined living.
L: Many privileged people lack the idea of living in homeless shelters. You don't have a long-term perspective - you can stay there for ten days a year, but without your own room, you're still on the street, you don't have any privacy, you can expect to be robbed at any time… people stabbing you because they want your stuff. These places are like a prison to lock up people who are bad for the image of society. A lot of people can't stand it there: a drug addict would need drugs, but they are forbidden, but no medical care is offered. But a long-term house like this one makes it less difficult to deal with problems. I was all the time struggling searching for a place to sleep, dumpster diving for food or money. Now my body and mind are so relieved and I feel healthier.
P: It was clear from the beginning of the project, a home can help to protect from the cold in the short term, but it does not create a living situation, it is not a step out of need, trauma or addiction. Self-determined living must be the goal.
The political claim is also important: it's not just about fifty people having a home, but about showing that it's possible and necessary on a larger scale. And it also involves a stop to the demolition of perfectly functional and cheap housing like this one.
AWC: The new safe space with many troubles gone, did it help free up some headspace for gaining new ideas, perspectives on life and a future that you were not able to have for a long time?
L: Totally. For example, I would like to have an education as a nurse, because I also want to help other people and there is a strong demand in Germany for that profession. First I will take care of myself and then get the education.
AWC: We really hope more people will have the same opportunity soon.
P: Homeless people squatted in this house and it's our common responsibility to make it work now. I hope many will take examples from this project: the legal framework but also the background of the people who organized themselves and squatted the house. Someone does night shifts, some are repairing things in the house, and others are collecting donations. It's still a lot of work, but it’s a purposeful one.
Check your privilege and leave no one behind.