The foundation works with young adults who've fallen through the cracks of the social system. The staff want to get stray youth off friends' couches and into their own apartments. Carla Bleiker reports from Cologne.
Winter has come to Germany. It's freezing and many parts of the country have seen snow. With winds so cold they sting your face, it's always a relief to step back into a warm apartment after biking home from work or even just a short grocery run. But for thousands of children and youth in Germany, there is no home to return to. They are part of the 335,000 homeless people who are living on streets and in shelters across the country. The number has increased dramatically. In 2010, authorities reported 246,000 homeless people.
Experts fear that there are even more teens and young adults who don't have a home but aren't registered by authorities. They believe there are at least 20,000 men and women between the ages of 18 and 23 who are staying with various friends and move from couch to couch. The Off Road Kids foundation, which works with homeless youth, calls these people "sofa hoppers" and warns that they cut all ties with their families, schools and any authorities that could help them find a job.
"State aid programs don't reach them anymore," Markus Seidel, spokesman for the Off Road Kids foundation, said. "They are about to lose all connections to the social system."
A more accessible way to get help
To get in touch with these hard-to-reach youths, the Off Road Kids foundation has now set up the website Sofa Hopper. Youths can chat live with a social worker, or leave a message. The site promises to help youths "find a better solution than a friend's couch."
Colin Emde, head of the Off Road Kids Cologne office, says the site is already popular, even though it has been live for less than a month. One reason: the threshold to enter into an online conversation via your smartphone is far lower than what it takes to go to a large, public agency.
"It's hard to go up to an office where people can see you to talk about your problems," Emde told DW. "Youth enter our online chat anonymously and then we can try to get them here as soon as possible so we can really help them."
"Here" means the Off Road Kids' offices in downtown Cologne. They're located on a quiet side street off the busy Neumarkt Square. The fifth-floor location used to be a private apartment. Now it houses work spaces for the foundation's five employees, a small extra office for one-on-one conversations and large, open areas where homeless youth, or "clients" as they are referred to by the staff, can use computers or pick up their mail.
The mail part is much more important than it sounds. You need a permanent mailing address to apply for benefits at the job center, but to get an apartment with a mailing address, you would need a job or benefits, which you get from the job center, but not without a mailing address - it's a vicious cycle.
Falling through the cracks
This bureaucratic logic is also what often proves to be the undoing of the youth who become sofa hoppers. In Germany, the youth welfare office is responsible for a child who is having trouble with their family and can't live at home. The youth receive financial assistance and can be put up in supervised shared-living facilities, together with other kids their age, until they're 18 years old.
After that it becomes a whole lot more difficult to obtain assistance. The youth have to leave the supervised living arrangement as soon as they're not legally minors anymore. But they usually have no way to afford an apartment at that point. Applying for aid is a complicated process that involves several offices. And more often than not, they get sent back and forth between the youth welfare office and the job center, both of whom claim not to be responsible.
The more Colin Emde talks about all the different papers the youth need to fill out, the more agitated he becomes. Sitting in the large conference room over the roofs of Cologne, he rapidly lists a myriad of forms and agencies that the young men and women, many of whom never even finished high school, need to deal with - impossible to understand for anyone not well-versed in the matter.
"Many of our clients have problems with basic reading, so understanding bureaucratic German would be an insurmountable challenge without help," Emde said.
A German-Turkish success story
Emde and his colleagues in Cologne, Dortmund, Hamburg and Berlin help the youth find their way through the paper jungle, work with them on getting a roof over their heads as soon as humanly possible and even place them in internships or traineeships.
Since the office in Cologne was set up in 2005, Emde and his colleagues have helped get an estimated 800 youth between the ages of 15 and 27 off the streets. They help around 60 clients a month.
Emde tells the story of one of the first clients who got in touch with him: "He had a long criminal record and was addicted to drugs, marijuana and amphetamines. At 19, he was sometimes staying with his parents and sometimes with his girlfriend. He was part of a criminal group of migrants, the Grey Wolves. He sold cocaine for them and bribed police. He attacked his girlfriend with a knife, so he was no longer allowed to be in touch with her. His parents finally sent him to the Turkish army to get him away from all this in Germany. But there he worked in war-like conditions in the Kurdish regions of Turkey. He hosed down floors in a prison so the guards could use the wet floors as conductors for electricity to torture inmates. His friend, another young German-Turkish man, killed himself sitting right next to him.
"He finally couldn't take it anymore, deserted and came back to Germany. But when his Turkish passport expired, he couldn't get new papers since he would have been arrested as a deserter as soon as he set foot in a Turkish embassy. We managed to get him German replacement documents and helped him finish high school. I got him a one-year-internship which turned into a traineeship and helped him move into his first own apartment. And now he's in a place where he's volunteering and helping others."
Relying on donations
Currently, the Off Road Kids Cologne office is working on setting up a project where they will help kids to graduate high school with one-on-one classes in their offices. The staff is also training to be able to give better health advice. But all that is dependent on generosity. Off Road Kids solely relies on donations and is getting no state money. But despite financing being difficult, the staff is passionate about their jobs.
"The kids can feel that we want to be here," Emde said. "We work with them because we want to, not because it's a mandated task."