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From sleeping bags to their own homes

December 1, 2019

Almost 680,000 people in Germany are homeless. Many of them dream of having a place of their own. The initiative "Housing First," which started in the US, aims to make this dream a reality.

Beggar sitting on snowy sidewalk
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Holleman

Andre Kurkowiak is especially proud of his bathroom. Rainfall shower, integrated shower radio, generous washbasin and fittings — such things would have seemed completely out of reach to him just five years ago. Back then, Kurkowiak was a heroin addict, his living space a prison cell. He spent a total of 10 years living on the street, in homeless shelters and in prison. For the past three years, though, he's had 34 square meters (366 square feet) to call his own — no bars on the windows, a rental contract and a key to his own front door.

This was made possible by a Düsseldorf organization called "fiftyfifty." It started about four years ago, and it's been following the "Housing First” approach to helping the homeless.

The basic idea is a simple one. Homeless people are given a place of their own, without preconditions, even if they're addicted to drugs or mentally ill. The thinking behind this is that problems like addiction can be addressed more easily when someone is in a stable environment. After they move in, the new tenants aren't required to accept additional help or participate in support programs, either. Everything is done on a voluntary basis, including follow-up support.

Andre Kurkowiak in his apartment in Düsseldorf
Andre Kurkowiak now has his own lease after 10 years of homelessnessImage: DW/L. Hänel

"We represent a paradigm shift in housing assistance," says Julia von Lindern, a social worker with "fiftyfifty" who's in charge of the "Housing First" initiative. "It's a question of attitude, whether we work on the premise that people must first be capable of living in a place before they're allowed to move in. We think the best way for people to learn how to keep house is for them to keep house."

The statistics speak for the initiative. Various studies have put the program's success rate, measured by the number of participants who stay in their apartments, at high percentages of between 75% and 90%. "fiftyfifty"'s experience confirms this. Of the 62 people who have benefited from the program so far, only four have returned to the streets.

Read more: Homelessness in Germany on the rise

Based on trust

In Düsseldorf, a team of six looks after the homeless people from the first point of contact until they move in. "We accompany them from sleeping bags to their own homes," says von Lindern. This establishes trust — which is essential for the "Housing First” initiative, as Nora Sellner, research assistant in the Department of Social Work at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, explains. The approach is that "multiprofessional teams go out and look for people wherever they are, and give them very basic care." A multiprofessional team may consist of a social worker, a psychiatrist and a doctor.

Although he now has his own home, Andre Kurkowiak still goes to the "fiftyfifty" community café every day. Trust has been established; he knows the employees there, and other people who, like him, used to be homeless. "I'm very happy in my apartment, but I am lonely sometimes," he says.

Julia von Lindern, social worker with "fiftyfifty" in Düsseldorf.
Von LIndern supervises 54 apartments in Düsseldorf with her teamImage: DW/L. Hänel

Julia von Lindern confirms that this can be a problem. People can become depressed in their own homes. Just because they have their own apartment, it doesn't mean all their problems are solved. Some remain addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Andre Kurkowiak was heavily addicted to heroin. He still goes to the doctor every day, where he's given a dose of the substitute drug methadone. He also drinks alcohol regularly,and doesn't believe he'll ever be able to stop.

"But people don't lose their apartments because of this," von Lindern says. "When they sheepishly confess that they've been drinking again, we say: 'It happens. So what are we going to do about it?'"

Read more: Hungary's homeless ban: When poverty becomes a crime

From first beginnings to national strategy

This approach goes back to the origins of "Housing First." It was first developed in New York and had a clear target group: long-term homeless people with mental illnesses and addiction issues. Since then, the approach has been adopted elsewhere in the US, in a modified form, as well as in several European countries. Finland has even declared it its national strategy — and it's the only European Union member country where homelessness statistics have gone down.

Nora Sellner says it's not clear whether "Housing First” is solely responsible for this. "What we can say is that Finland has a clear strategy that is and will continue to be implemented right across the country. They're integrating the stance of the Housing First approach — that every person has a right to somewhere to live — and it's become policy. This is something we still have to achieve in Germany."

Finland is also doing things that weren't envisaged in the original "Housing First" initiative. The Scandinavian country has converted entire emergency shelters into apartments. This means that former homeless people live alongside others in the same situation.

Originally, the initiative envisaged new tenants moving into residential areas where there would be hardly any other people from their social milieu. Julia von Lindern says that this is where the "Housing First" project in Düsseldorf is most successful. When homeless people move into flats in buildings alongside tenants who haven't experienced homelessness, "the reaction of the new tenants is almost to over-adapt, asking how they should separate the garbage and recycling because they don't want to get anything wrong."

Kitchen in one of the 'fiftyfifty' apartments in Düsseldorf
The 'fiftyfifty' apartments have all that is needed to live comfortablyImage: DW/L. Hänel

Difficult rental market

In Germany, the "Housing First" approach is only tentatively being taken up as part of the program of helping the homeless. Düsseldorf and Berlin are making progress with their own projects. However, cities like Cologne, Bremen and Hanover are now also following suit. The biggest obstacle is always the highly competitive housing market, especially in big cities. The "Housing First" approach envisages homeless people living in their own apartments as independent tenants. But this means landlords have to be found who are prepared to rent to former homeless people. In Düsseldorf, "fiftyfifty" is doing it differently. The organization buys the apartments itself, using money from donations and the sale of artworks — so, as the owners, they're also the landlords.

Andre Kurkowiak in his apartment in Düsseldorf, holding a lizard
One of Kurkowiak's first acts after moving in was to buy a petImage: DW/L. Hänel

Most of the apartments that "fiftyfifty" buys are located outside city centers. "We've given ourselves the guideline of not spending more than €3,000 ($3,305) per square meter," says Julia von Lindern. "This means we can hardly afford anything in the city center.” On average, the organization spends between €70,000 and €90,000 on buying an apartment. That's a lot of money, Julia von Lindern admits — but it actually works out cheaper than traditional housing support, where 18 months of assisted living can cost around €250,000 per person.

Andre Kurkowiak was lucky. His apartment is located right in the center of Düsseldorf, less than 15 minutes from the main railway station. "I can do what I want. I can go anywhere by train; I've got supermarkets nearby. Since I moved in here, I've really started living," he says. In the past three years, he's never once thought of going back to the street.

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