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Germany

Winter shelters help rough sleepers escape the cold

Winter poses a life-threatening situation to the homeless. Large cities in Germany offer emergency shelters, but many of those living on the streets need long-term help.

Temperatures no longer rise above zero Celsius, even in the day. Light snow falls turn into permanent frost. Yet despite the cold weather there are still rough sleepers on the streets, seeking refuge in building entrances or under bridges. They face the risk of frostbite, hypothermia and at worst, freezing to death. Municipalities are doing their best to prevent this. In cities such as Frankfurt am Main or Cologne, volunteers provide the homeless with hot drinks, soups, thermal mats or sleeping bags.

Warmth and neighborly love

Arzu Mischkoff drives the winter bus through Cologne. Two times a week, she and her helpers provide food – and neighborly love  - to the homeless. "We want to create moments of contact," said Arzu Mischkoff. "Communication is a basic need, like food and drink. And people talk to each other when they eat." Her organization "Freunde der Kölner Straßen und ihrer Bewohner" ("Friends of Cologne's streets and their residents") started in 2014 by doing rounds with handcarts and now, it has grown into an almost professional aid organization.

Obdachlose in der Kälte (picture alliance/dpa)

A member of the aid organization, Caritas, informs a homeless man in Berlin about the availability of shelters.

"Volunteer commitment shows that warmth and neighborly love exist and that homeless people have not been forgotten," says Rainer Best from the Catholic men's social service (SKM). At SKM, Best is responsible for providing accommodation to homeless men and women. They not only find shelter but also personal conversations and advice. "There are people who are not even capable of accepting help. Others refuse help," he says, referring to his daily experiences. Then, even volunteer work cannot help.

Emergency shelters and 24-hour hotline

Dirk Schumacher, head of housing and resocialization services in Cologne, firmly agrees with Best. Specific social problems are often the reason why some people stay on the streets, he explains. Homelessness often goes hand in hand with mental illness or addiction. Many of those affected "cannot integrate into society or they flee from it." Only a few of them regularly make use of the shelter on frosty days and nights – it is too difficult for some of them to abstain from alcohol in the shelters.

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An estimated 200 rough sleepers permanently live on Cologne's streets. That is why the city regularly organizes what it calls its "cold drives" in the winter. Social workers usually look for rough sleepers in their usual spots so they can talk to them and inform them about the emergency shelters. Every winter, additional accommodation is organized. "It is not enough for people to get a soup or heavier jacket," said Schumacher. "We want to provide the people with long-term help and counselling."

In addition to the extra accommodation in emergency shelters and the drives through the cold, the city of Cologne has a free 24-hour helpline number that passers-by can use to report cases of people who are sleeping outdoors in temperatures below zero Celsius.

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No exact figures

The need for emergency shelters has grown this year, according to the federal community for homeless aid (BAG W). "We currently predict that we will need more space," says Thomas Specht, director of BAG W. Since 2009, the number of people without a home has risen every year. Nonetheless, there are fewer shelters for rough sleepers in Berlin than there were last winter, reports the aid group.

It is unclear how many people in Germany live on the streets. The federal government does not compile statistics. "It is estimated that there are 40,000 homeless people throughout Germany who live on the streets and have no home," estimates Specht. "And that is only the small but visible group of those who cannot afford an apartment."

Tip of the iceberg

Homeless people are defined as anyone who does not have a place to live or a fixed address. Further, they are people who live in shelters or temporary homes and do not have their own apartment. According to estimates, roughly 335,000 people were homeless in 2014 – most of them were single men. The BAG W believes that the number rose to 500,000 in 2015.

Frankfurt Übernachtungsplatz für Obdachlose (picture alliance/dpa/A. Arnold)

Homeless people sleep in a train station in Frankfurt am Main.

Aid for the homeless in Frankfurt am Main is diverse and active in many areas, despite fears about the refugees diverting attention from the plight of the homeless. Daniela Birkenfeld, a city councilor in Frankfurt, explaines, "Independent organizations and the city are as professional and serious about their winter activities as they have been in past years." As in other major European cities, there is a high number of Eastern Europeans in Frankfurt, especially Romanians and Bulgarians. They often try to make use of their right to freedom of movement within the EU, but end up not finding work, and thus no home; yet they do not want return to their home country, says Manuela Skotnik, a refugee advisor in Frankfurt am Main. 

Increasing social decline

It is a similar story in other large German cities. Two thirds of the shelter capacity is used by people from Eastern Europe, says Rainer Best of his shelter in Cologne. They are people who come from extremely poor regions and "imagined a different life in Germany," says Best. His main concern is that he will able to continue offering shelters all year round and then expand them in the winter.

He is also concerned about the impoverishment of the middle class. Many people are already on the brink of poverty. BAG W director Thomas Specht has observed a similar trend. "Society is divided into rich and poor. We have a structural decline in the ability to pay rent in the lower income groups." Housing is becoming scarcer, especially in large cities, where rents are rising rapidly and "more and more people are losing housing space."

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