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Kerstin Kempker

The Runaway-house in Berlin

We opened the Runaway-House "Weglaufhaus" on the first of January in 1996. We that are the "Association for Protection against Psychiatric Violence" founded seven years earlier by a small group of survivors and other antipsychiatric activists. (In Germany we don't speak of survivors, but of "Psychiatrie-Betroffene". A term, that can't be translated into English. It means people who are afflicted by or confronted with psychiatry. It is a less radical and more neutral term than survivor, but it is far away from the term user.)

What is the Runaway-house?

The Runaway-House is an antipsychiatric crisis-centre for homeless survivors of Psychiatry, for people who mostly spent a long time in psychiatric wards and who want to live without psychiatry, without its diagnosis and without its drugs. This decision for self-determination and for self-responsibility doesn't mean that it can be achieved by decision. It is a first and a necessary step. But after years far away from one's own wishes, possibilities, even from the own body, you need more than a decision.

You need

  • support by day and by night

  • people who listen, who are interested, who trust in one's words and who believe in one's future

  • an intensive exchange with other residents about their experiences

  • a few rules: No violence (especially physical violence against others), mutual respect, no alcohol or illegal drugs in the house

  • a place, where the everyday life can be tried once again or for the first time.

After about ten years of struggle the Runaway-House is the first German institution of this kind that gets official funding. According to § 72 of the "Federal Social Welfare Law", called "Help in special social difficulties", only homeless people can get the day-rate of 200 Deutschmark (about 103 €) for up to six months. But they don't get it easily. In Berlin we have 23 different Social Welfare offices with 23 different ways of decision-making, and every resident has to visit one of them and to fulfil all of its—sometimes incredible—wishes. For people with enormous problems, without a home, mostly without friends and with a lot of drug-caused physical problems this situation is very distressing, even if they are accompanied to the office.

What is antipsychiatric in the Runaway-house?

  • The residents are responsible for themselves. They are not mentally ill, even if they partially live in other realities or fall in deep crises.

  • No diagnosis, no drugs (except the psychiatric drugs people take, who prefer a slow withdrawal step by step), no coercion and no psychiatrists

  • All documents we have to write about them are open to the residents. They can comment and even correct them

  • At least half of the team members are survivors of psychiatry. (At the moment we are 12 workers—7 women, 5 men—7 are survivors)

  • The professional qualification of the workers is less significant than human qualities (tolerance, sensitivity, a sense of humour), experiences in dealing with conflicts and a clear antipsychiatric attitude

  • The decision-making bodies all are survivor-controlled. Decisions are made transparently. The house meeting of all residents and two workers twice a week is the highest authority in the house. The team meets once a week. If there are contradictory decisions or basic questions, a "general assembly" of all residents and the team takes place. The very final decision stays with the Association.

Who lives in the house?

The residents mostly come from Berlin, but some come from other parts of Germany or from Switzerland. They all were inmates in psychiatric institutions and are homeless or threatened to lose their accommodation. One third of them comes directly out of a psychiatric institution, 20% are homeless and living in the streets, 23% come from other social or social psychiatric institutions or women's shelters, and the rest come from their families, friends or—seldom—out of their own apartments, where they cannot stay anymore. In the first three years 132 persons lived in the house, 63 women and 69 men. The majority have long histories of psychiatric treatment; most have been institutionalised various times, have been forcibly treated and heavily drugged. And most have not only experienced psychiatric violence, but also sexual, physical or psychic violence during their childhood. Most do not have professional qualifications and live on Social Welfare aid. Often the residents have guardians for specific tasks.

What happens in the house?

The Runaway-House is no therapeutic institution. It deals with the daily life and problems. And there are enough of them. Up to thirteen residents share the old and not very huge villa and organize the household.

The task of the workers is to make it function, to support and to clarify conflicts. There is no timetable, no program, but there are a lot of individual, social, legal and financial problems that have to be solved. The main task is planning a future with each of the residents, a future work, living, relationships, a future of life beyond psychiatry.

Especially in the evening and the night residents often re-experience traumatic situations, they can't sleep and have a hard time, they don't trust in their own future, even hurt themselves. We share the sleepiness nights, propose a walk on the nearby fields, go together in the sports' room, where one can cry, box or throw things against the wall. Or we listen and speak about similar experiences.

As long as some form of communication and a rest ot self-responsibility exist, crisis and madness are possible in the Runaway-House. If contact or agreements become completely impossible for a longer time and the atmosphere in the house is heavily disturbed, a resident may have to leave the house.

Are there any problems?

Of course there are a lot of problems. I give you some key words:

  • The time: 6 months are a very short time to solve fundamental problems

  • The enemies of the house: neighbours, who carefully observe us; political enemies, who try to close the house; enemies in the administration, who don't pay; and our best and oldest enemy, psychiatry

  • The lack of other antipsychiatric institutions

  • Little tolerance among the residents (sometimes), a wish of an antipsychiatric nursing

  • We are not enough workers, sometimes we get tired or (rarely) even mad

So it is not easy to live or to work in the house, very often it is loud and chaotic, the fridge is empty, you don't find any spoon or coffee-pot, thick clouds of cigarette-smoke hang in the air and nobody wants to do anything.

I like this place, but I can't work there forever. And our residents have the best chances in life, when they were able to spend a long time in this particular house.