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A homeless man asleep on a park bench
Some 20,000 people in Germany reportedly live on the streets without shelterImage: Bilderbox

Homeless in Germany

Kate Bowen
October 5, 2006

Germany is a wealthy country with a cushy social welfare system, but drugs, red tape and a lack of motivation keep some people on the streets.


Maik is tall, blond, good-looking -- and homeless.

"I'm ashamed to be sitting here," reads the cardboard sign next to his dirty paper cup.

"If only I had a little bit of money to be mobile ... I need money for a train ticket down to Ludenscheidt in case I get called to go to court," said Maik, who has spent several years in jail and is currently on probation.

He's also up to his chin in debts. His monthly welfare check amounts to 340 euros ($433), but it wasn't enough to allow him to make ends meet, he said.

A homeless person sleeps under a blanket next to a shopping cart in downtown Frankfurt
Over half of the homeless people in Germany are men, according to the BAGWImage: AP

Maik is one of an estimated 345,000 homeless people in Germany, according to the Federal Consortium for Aid for the Homeless (BAGW).

The country's social welfare system is one of the most generous in the world and homeless shelters report empty beds. It's not a lack of help, but red tape, addictions and lack of motivation that contribute to persistent homelessness.

Empty beds in homeless shelters

"We offer a lot, but we have the problem that our help often isn't accepted," said Norbert Müller, director of the Prälat-Schleich-Haus in Bonn, a homeless shelter run by the Catholic Caritas organization. The house offers both transitional and long-term accommodation.

For many, the cost of help is too high, said Müller. Not only would staying at the shelter mean paying a small amount from the money they receive from the state, it would also entail staying sober, avoiding drugs, and doing chores with the rest of the residents.

Yet another hindrance is accessing the social help that is available.

Paperwork and loopholes

A group of people hanging out across from the Bonn train station, where many drug deals take place
The steps across from Bonn's central station are a favorite hang-out for drug addictsImage: DW/Kate Bowen

"The government maybe does enough, with a big question mark, but it also presents big hurdles. The state makes it really difficult sometimes," said Helmut, from an organization called mob that publishes the homeless magazine Strassenfeger ("Street Sweeper") and runs a shelter in Berlin.

Cutting through the red tape is one of the main services that shelters and other organizations offer. Müller said his staff members often have to accompany residents to government offices to assist them in registering for welfare money.

He estimates that in Bonn, a city of just over 300,000 people, there are 40 to 60 individuals who literally live and sleep on the street, not including those who have found refuge in his shelter and at other institutions. The city's statistic lies at 100, he said, because their definition of "homeless" includes those with temporary housing.

National decline in homelessness

A man is begging in downtown Bonn
"I'm hungry" his sign says to passing shoppers in BonnImage: DW/Kate Bowen

The national homeless statistics have improved dramatically over the past decade. The BAGW estimated that there were 920,000 homeless people in Germany in 1995.

However, this statistic also includes those who had immigrated to Germany from former East Germany and the former Soviet Union after the fall of the Iron Curtain and had not yet found a new home.

"The real estate market was poor in the mid-90s," said the consortium's spokeswoman, Verena Rosenke, "and preventative measures have improved significantly since then as well."

Over the past 10 years, more organizations have been established -- many of them private or church-related -- to offer assistance to those facing eviction before they lose their apartment completely, added Rosenke.

Staying high keeps many down

Niko has already lost the roof over his head. At the moment though, he was so stoned he could hardly keep his eyes open. The 22-year-old said he'd spent time in a shelter, but the people there were "bottom of the barrel" and he would only go back to avoid freezing.

A man sniffs cocaine
Drug addiction is common among homeless peopleImage: dpa - Fotoreport

However, he hadn't received permission to stay longer at the shelter -- which may have required him to sober up -- so Niko would probably end up sleeping on the street that night, perhaps on a bench or in a doorway.

Drug addition is the albatross around the neck of many homeless people, especially in Bonn, said Müller. He estimated that around half of his shelter's residents were addicts.

Following a dream

Still, there are success stories.

An unnamed 20-year-old in a transitional home had a history of drug addiction and said he had come to Bonn to remove himself from the negative influence of his former circle of friends. Now, he had been living in the home for eight months and was working on finishing his high school degree, he said.

Life in the all-male transitional home is not a piece of cake. The 16 residents take turns cooking and cleaning. The tasks not only meet their immediate needs, but also give them the skills they'll need when they eventually have their own place.

And having their own place is their biggest dream.

"Everyone just wants to get a handle on their lives," the young man said. "I just want to finish school and be able to run my own household."

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