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Germany

Germany's homeless fight vicious circle of life on the street

Although Germany has a strong social safety net, around 30,000 people still live on the street. A day center for the homeless in Cologne sheds light on why getting help can be so difficult.

Homeless person puts sugar in his coffee

The "Oase" is a part-time home for those on the street

Paul sits in the corner of the empty smoke-filled lounge and rolls his cigarettes. He used to work as a truck driver in his home country, Hungary, but lost his job about two years ago. Since then, he has been trying to find work somewhere in Europe: He looked in Austria, Spain, and Denmark before finally coming to Germany.

He spent the last of his money on a train ticket to Cologne and has been homeless ever since. In the afternoons, he comes to the Oase, a day center for the homeless. It's one of at least half a dozen facilities in the area around the central station. Some offer food or advice, others overnight accommodation.

In the shadow of uptown

The Oase, which translates as "Oasis" in English, is located on the banks of the Rhine River and is only accessible via an old swing bridge. Right across the river is the Rheinauhafen, which used to be a harbor but has now become Cologne's ambitious urban redevelopment project.

Rents for offices and apartment in the former warehouses on the harbor strip are the highest in the city. The day center on the other side of the water is somewhat less glamorous.

"It is a place for homeless people to ask questions," said Sabine Rother, one of three social workers at the facility. "We give them advice on where they can sleep or where they have to go to apply for social benefits. They can also eat and drink for little money or just rest here in the afternoon."

Sven, worker at homeless day center in Cologne

Sven, one of Oase's twenty volunteers, used to be homeless himself

Lunch for 70 cents

The staff try very hard to create a homely and cozy atmosphere in the main lounge. There are shelves filled with books and board games, cushy sofas and potted plants. Up to 60 people come here every day. At lunch time, guests can choose from a small menu and the prices are very low: Scrambled eggs with bacon go for 70 cents, bratwurst with fries for one euro.

Twenty volunteers help the social workers run the center. Some come in once a month, some a lot more often. Sven, 22 years old and unemployed, cooks lunch here three times a week. He knows what it's like to be on the other side of the counter.

"I was out on the streets myself, and I know the problems involved," he recalled. "You have nowhere to turn, especially in the winter. By working here I can stay in touch. I like being here and I have a lot of fun with the folks who come here."

A little respect

The volunteers at the Oase don't only cook lunch, they also visit those homeless people they know who are in the hospital, put together a street newspaper which is sold by the homeless, and distribute clothing.

For special occasions like a funeral or a job interview, people can borrow suits or dresses. The services offered at the Oase always try to take individual circumstances into account.

"We help the people in the way they want to be helped," explained Rother. "If we can't solve their problem here we try to put them in touch with other facilities which might be able to help, but we always try to treat them like adults, not like kids."

Social worker Sabine Rother talks to a homeless man in a wheelchair

"We don't tell the homeless what is good for them," said social worker Sabine Rother (right)

Learning how to live indoors

Many homeless people receive social benefits and there are enough social housing projects in Cologne that no one should be forced to sleep on the street for want of a warm bed. But people do. Michael Schleicher, head of Cologne's housing administration, said the challenge of moving into their own home can be so big that it keeps some people on the street.

"You can actually forget how to live in a home," said Schleicher, "It's like work - you have to not only want to work, but you have to learn again how to do it. Living isolated like this can change someone's psyche in profound ways."

In Cologne, around 1,500 homeless people or those in danger of losing their home come to the social assistance offices on a regular basis. They can withdraw their benefits here, see a doctor, and get advice on health insurance or on social housing projects.

Psychological illnesses, family problems, extreme stress - in most cases, a variety of reasons come together to put someone out on the street. Many are ashamed to ask friends and family for help. Landlords often refuse to let their property to someone who they know is or has been homeless: a vicious circle.

In addition, the number of workers from Eastern European countries like Romania or Bulgaria who come to Germany to look for work has increased significantly in the last few years. For some, what was supposed to be a fresh start turned into a nightmare out on the street.

"By law we have to help these people too," Schleicher said. "But letting them live here on an absolute minimum - that doesn't help them or the community."

For Paul at the Oase, going back to Hungary is not an option for him at the moment. He will keep on trying to find work in Germany, or elsewhere in Europe. The welfare project providing him with a bed in a shelter will end this month because winter is almost over. Where he will sleep then, he doesn't know.

Author: Jan Bruck

Editor: Kate Bowen

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