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A bearded homless man in Bonn
Image: DW/Klaussner

Helping the homeless

Dagmar Breitenbach
February 7, 2012

Even when it gets cold, homeless people in Germany are often too proud to accept help. But with temperatures plunging far below zero, many have been turning to local emergency shelters.


"I'm a regular here," Wolfgang mumbles, as he drags deeply on his hand-rolled cigarette. He's come to the City-Station, an emergency shelter run by the German charity Caritas in Bonn.

Wolfgang sits in a bright basement room furnished with wooden tables and benches, a TV set and the most important thing: a functioning radiator. "I wouldn't survive without this room," says Wolfgang as he tugs a black wool cap further down on his head. He wears it indoors, too.

Wolfgang is 71 and has lived on the streets for 10 years, in Munich, Frankfurt and Berlin. Now, he lives in Bonn. "I usually spend the night in the entrance halls of banks, in subway stations or sheltered doorways. But you can't survive outdoors at minus 10 degrees [Celsius] like last night, " he says. "I would freeze to death."

So every night, Wolfgang shows up in front of the warm Caritas shelter, his bundle of belongings in hand. Pensive, he strokes his grey beard and nods at the bench in the corner of the room.

Caritas shelter
The shelter is open 24/7 in a cold snapImage: DW/Klaussner

"That's my bed at the moment," he says. There's no mattress or pillow, but Wolfgang is content. "The lined coat I wear is my blanket," he says.

In danger of freezing to death

Authorities estimate the number of homeless people in Germany at more than 250,000. About 20,000 people permanently live outdoors, and they are the ones most endangered when temperatures drop below freezing.

The current cold snap, which hit Germany last week, has already claimed several lives here. Throughout Europe, more than 220 people are reported to have died from the cold. Meteorologists expect temperatures to remain low, dropping to below -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) at night in some parts of the country.

That's why aid organizations like Caritas offer emergency shelters in the form of basic, warm rooms or tents. Anyone with an ID card is welcome to spend the night. More comfortable rooms are available, too: lodgings where the homeless can spend more than just a few nights.

By approval only

A homeless man in Bonn
It's not easy to ask for help, says MarcelImage: DW/Klaussner

Haus Sebastian, in southwestern Bonn, is run by a rehabilitation association. It's where Marcel, 18, is spending the night. He is one of Bonn's youngest homeless people.

"You need permission to get into this hostel," he says, adding that this is not difficult to get. The city's social welfare office hands out authorization for a bed in a homeless shelter. "I lost my flat a few days ago and was really scared of ending up on the street," he says. "In weather as cold as this, I only have the choice of going to a homeless shelter or freezing to death on the street."

Marcel approaches his new home, a simple apartment building. A young student named Sarah Gröhl is seated in the doorman's office. Smiling, she nods at Marcel and gives him a room key.

Gröhl says 87 beds are taken, with 10 still vacant. "I'm surprised the homeless aren't lined up for a bed in weather like this," she says. "But I think if the next few nights are cold, too - they'll come."

Marcel nods in agreement, but he knows why so many homeless people don't go near the shelters. "It's because of the strict rules: no alcohol, no drugs," he says. "If you break the rules, you're out. Immediately. And people steal. Lots of people here have alcohol or drug-related problems. I fear my money will be stolen, too. It's worse than on the street."

No alcohol, no drugs

Pride is another reason, says Marcel. "We homeless have our pride, too. I had to force myself to ask for a bed in the shelter," he says.

A woman works in homeless shelter
There are still a few empty beds at Haus SebastianImage: DW/Klaussner

In response to the cold snap, aid organizations have added extra shifts and set up emergency telephone numbers for citizens who notice homeless people out at night. In major cities like Cologne, aid workers patrol the streets to track down the more reluctant homeless. Berlin and Frankfurt send out special busses to collect homeless people and drive them to the shelters.

Sascha Dickmann is a volunteer with the Red Cross in Essen. He and his girlfriend drive around town every evening on the lookout for homeless. "They like the hot tea and soup we offer, and clothing and blankets," he says.

"But when we want to take them to a warm emergency shelter, many decline. To avoid freezing, they'd rather walk around town all night long. I respect that. But of course, I'm shocked when I see someone lying in a doorway at -10 degrees."

Dickmann has been overwhelmed by the public's enormous willingness to help. "Just one appeal on the radio - and we got lots of blankets and clothing. That's a great feeling," he says.

Most people help and respect us, Wolfgang agrees. "The other day, someone handed me coffee and a roll - just like that."

Marcel, fishing a warm winter coat from a box of donations, agrees. "Without this aid, we wouldn't make it though the winter."

Author: Miriam Klaussner/ db
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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