A controversy has broken out in Germany over assistance given by church agencies to homeless people congregating at railway stations.

Seeking warmth and shelter, many of the urban homeless gather at the stations, in some cases receiving assistance from the Bahnhofsmission, or station mission, an ecumenical agency that offers aid at 100 of the country's main railway stations.

In recent weeks, the head of German Rail, Hartmut Mehdorn, has said repeatedly that he wants homeless people blocked from entering railway stations. German Rail is implementing a coordinated program for "service, security and cleanliness" at its stations—a plan that doesn't fit well with the presence of a homeless population.

The controversy over Bahnhofsmission first broke out after a newspaper reported that Mehdorn wanted to remove the agency from station premises. Although German Rail denied the report, it said that Mehdorn did not believe that the agency, which receives premises rent-free from German Rail, should provide meals "in or at railway stations for homeless people and junkies."

Such activities, according to the railway's statement, should take place elsewhere, and German Rail was willing to help the Bahnhofsmission find "appropriate" premises.

The statement added that the Bahnhofsmission did an "admirable job, and German Rail must ensure that the Bahnhofsmission has respectable premises."

Most of Bahnhofsmission's work involves helping travelers, but it also offers coffee, bread, and short-term shelter to homeless people. In addition, in stations at Berlin and Frankfurt, two of Germany's biggest cities, it offers hot meals to the homeless.

Church agencies have been critical of Mehdorn's remarks.

"Stations are public areas, and should remain so. We reject the idea of excluding homeless, excluded and sick people," said Jurgen Gohde, president of Diakonisches Werk, or Diaconal Work, the main social services agency of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), and one of the sponsors of the Bahnhofsmission. Gohde has been trying for weeks, without success, to meet Mehdorn to discuss the railway chief's remarks.

Ute Burbach-Tasso, spokesperson of Diakonisches Werk, said, "It is our job to speak up for marginalized groups and people that are excluded."

She rejected the argument put forward by German Rail that people without a ticket had no business at stations. "German Rail attracts people by offering shopping facilities. Shoppers don't buy tickets either," she said.

Last week, however, in an effort to calm the situation, Mehdorn discussed the issue with Manfred Kock, the president of the EKD's council. In a statement issued by the EKD after the meeting, the two men said that "competent authorities" should offer assistance and food to homeless people and drug addicts "on the spot."

The statement also said Mehdorn had reaffirmed that "the service offered by the Bahnhofsmission is both necessary and desirable" and that he did not envisage "driving the Bahnhofsmission out of railway stations or to their periphery." The Bahnhofsmission could count on "receiving every possible support from the railways."

At one of Berlin's main stations, German Rail has already offered additional premises outside the station so that Bahnhofsmission could provide food for homeless people and drug addicts.

Achim Stauss, spokesperson of German Rail, said, "The Bahnhofsmission does a wonderful and much needed job. We don't want to remove the mission from our stations. But we have to make sure that traveling is safe."

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