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. ...

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