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Urban homeless

Marcus Lütticke / ngJune 23, 2014

The number of people sleeping rough in Germany has gone up significantly in Germany in the last few years. But local governments and businesses are stepping up measures to keep them out of city centers.

Obdachlose im Winter
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Torsten Meiners from the northern German city of Hamburg has been sleeping outdoors for 10 years now. He sometimes has the opportunity to stay in abandoned houses or shelters, but more often than not, he ends up on the street.

Meiners' gambling addiction meant he could no longer pay for his rent, as he had racked up too much debt. He became severely depressed. "I started sleeping on park benches as soon as the depression started," he told DW.

He got food from a nearby gas station, where he cleaned the toilets in exchange for food that the station's shop didn't manage to sell. He also collected discarded bottles to get the deposit that people have to pay for most drinks sold in Germany.

Split society

One might think that a rich country like Germany would not have many homeless people. According to the DIW economic institute, in 2012, private households in Europe's largest economy had a combined wealth of 6.3 trillion euros - 83,000 euros per adult.

Obdachlosigkeit in Bonn
Germany has the largest wealth gap in the eurozoneImage: DW/S.Amri

But the institute stresses that in no other country in the eurozone were the total financial assets distributed so unevenly. Roughly a fifth of the population has no assets to speak of, around seven percent have a higher level of debt than assets.

Germany's umbrella organization for housing assistance (BAGW) says the number of people without a domicile in Germany has gone up dramatically over the last few years. In 2012, 284,000 people had nowhere to live - a rise of 15 percent compared to 2010. And BAGW expects that figure to rise again by a further 30 percent to 380,000 by 2016.

For Torsten Meiners, things have got even tougher over the years. A few years ago, he was sleeping rough under a bridge in the Hamburg district of St. Pauli. The local council then put up a fence to keep the homeless away. "There were public protests against it though, as many said 'we don't want that kind of exclusion," Meiners says.

So, the fence was taken down again, but after a fire in 2013, scaffolding is blocking the area near the famous red-light district, the Reeperbahn. Meiners says no one is doing any work there though.

At Hamburg's main station, homeless people are also being chased away by security staff on a regular basis. Christoph Butterwegge, poverty researcher at the University of Cologne, blames what he calls the increased commercialization of big railway stations that "increasingly lead to stations being turned into temples of consumerism that are connected to railway tracks."

Often, private companies are in charge, who focus on having a "clean" station that leaves no room for the homeless and the poor, Butterwegge says.

Unexpected shower

A few years ago, a big fashion chain in Hamburg came up with a particularly drastic means of keeping the homeless away from the shop's entrance. Whoever settled down there for the night was woken up by sprinklers at some point in the night and ended up soaked. The chain also used this method for its branch in the town of Münster in western Germany.

Spikes gegen Obdachlose in London
These spikes caused outrage in LondonImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The company insisted the mechanism was in place for cleaning purposes only, but dismantled the sprinklers after widespread protests.

There have also been drastic measures in other cities in Europe. Recently in London, a private landlord put up metal spikes at the entrance of his estate, prompting outrage in the UK.

"You can't treat people like that," Meiners says. But he does sympathize with residents and businesses. "When you go to work in the morning and you see people sleeping in front of your house or flat, possibly even drunk, it's simply unacceptable," he says, adding that alternatives are needed to solve the problem.

He points to an initiative by a group of businesses in Hamburg as a positive example. It provides homeless people with access to lockers and washrooms. Meiners says it leads to a better understanding on both sides.

Political failure

Of course, a stable social network would be the best way to prevent people from ending up on the street. Often, people end up sleeping rough through no fault of their own, and the high rents in a city like Hamburg mean they have no chance of changing their situation.

"Instead of letting private investors take over large chunks of the housing market, the government should be much more involved in preventing homelessness - like they used to do through social housing projects," Butterwegge believes.

He believes society is increasingly being dominated by the free market, which, in Butterwegge's view, is "a sign of a brutalized and deprived society."