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How Germany plans to end homelessness

May 12, 2024

The German government has released a National Action Plan to eliminate homelessness by 2030. Homeless people and charities think the plan is admirable — but much too vague.

People camping under a bridge at Stuttgarter Platz in Berlin
Germany has registered a growing number of homeless people in recent yearsImage: Schoening/picture alliance

Dirk Dymarski was homeless for two decades, living partly in emergency homeless shelters and partly on the streets. It was, he said, "not something you can just shake off." But it also changed the way he thought.

"Being homeless for 20 years was a lesson for me in every way because I used to think and act in a discriminatory, stigmatizing way myself," he told DW. "But in the last few years, I realized that anyone can get into that situation, and it is difficult to get out of it."

Dymarski is now part of the Freistätter Online Zeitung, a local newspaper written by homeless people in the small town Freistatt, Lower Saxony, and a member of Selbstvertretung Wohnungsloser Menschen ("Self-Representation for Homeless People"), an organization aimed at giving the homeless a political voice in Germany.

The biggest obstacle for homeless people trying to find a home, he said, is the stigma. "If you want to get out of homelessness and find an affordable place to live, the first question you get asked is: Where do you live at the moment? And if you tell a potential landlord you live in a shelter, you'll fall through the cracks pretty quickly."

A person in a winter jacket and hat is sitting on the ground, legs covered with a blanket, in a Düsseldorf street. There's a little cardboard sign with a paper cup for donations in front of it.
Being unhoused is especially difficult in the colder months in GermanyImage: Michael Gstettenbauer/IMAGO

The end of homelessness?

Homelessness has risen over the last few years, thanks to an ongoing lack of affordable housing. Though exact figures are difficult to ascertain, the German government estimates there are around 375,000 homeless people in the country, while the Federal Working Group on Assistance for the Homeless has put the number at 600,000, some 50,000 of whom live on the streets. Those figures include anyone who doesn't have a rental contract or their own home.

German authorities are obliged to provide emergency shelters for people living on the streets, but many people opt to stay outside because such shelters often cannot guarantee either privacy or safety.

To combat the problem, the German government released a "National Action Plan" in late April to tackle what it calls the "mammoth task" of ending homelessness in the country by 2030 — the first time a German federal government has ever put together such a document.

The 31-point plan, published by the Federal Ministry for Housing, Urban Development and Building, offers ideas like giving money to state governments to build social housing, combating discrimination on the housing market, helping people get access to health insurance and making counseling services more accessible.

"More affordable housing is at the heart of the fight against homelessness," Germany's Social Democrat Housing Minister Klara Geywitz said in a statement. "The existence of this nationwide guideline was an explicit wish of civil society, the many people who care for homeless people."

Living on the streets 'like being at war'

All of this sounds very good, according to the homeless charities and organizations who were consulted before the plan was formulated — but only as a start.

Dymarski and his colleagues praised how well-prepared and respectful Geywitz was in their consultations, but he thinks the resulting plan is too vague and undercooked.

So do other homeless organizations. "'Action plan' sounds like: 'Here we go, now we have a plan and now we'll put it into action.' But I wonder if it isn't really more of a position paper," said Corinna Müncho, director of the Housing First project in Berlin. "The people who have to actually implement the plan — the state and local authorities — still don't know how they're supposed to do it."

The Housing First initiative helps homeless people find their own homes — unconditionally because the project starts from the principle that having your own place to live is simply a right. Müncho has seen what living on the streets does to people.

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"One of our clients once told me that living on the streets is like being at war," she told DW. "Every day you're in fight mode or in survival mode. People are completely without protection, constantly vigilant, have no private space, no room where they have any intimacy — everything you might have as a primary need is not covered. That does something to your psyche. Your brain actually reconstructs itself in order to cope with it."

Lack of affordable housing

The government's action plan is something that charities have been calling for for a long time, said Lars Schäfer, spokesperson for the Protestant Church's Diakonie charity. "The fact that politicians are even addressing this issue is positive," he told DW. "This means that we can keep reminding the government what targets it has formulated."

But he also said the plan's 31 points are no more than "a collection of measures already agreed on earlier by the government, and a few new ones that neither involve major changes in the law or cost money — and those are the two most important levers."

A case in point would be the first point: a €18.15-billion ($19.45-billion) commitment the federal government plans to give the states to build social housing for the period 2022 to 2027. The states desperately need rent-controlled apartments, but this fund was already announced two years ago — and the government was forced to admit last year that only 22,545 new units were made available in 2022, a long way behind its target of 100,000 per year.

"That makes me think: Sure, you can write that in there, but it doesn't help because in the end all that is being done isn't leading to the homelessness figures going down," said Müncho.

Schäfer thinks there are concrete measures that governments could take, but which the action plan has shied away from: for example, the prejudices of landlords could be circumnavigated if local authorities established quotas for homeless people in the new social housing. Similarly, the federal government could stipulate that a certain proportion of the money handed over to states to build social housing could be used to house the homeless.

Berlin's Cold Bus helping the homeless

It isn't just a matter of spending more money, said Müncho — it's about better allocation. "The money is there — emergency accommodation costs an incredible amount of money for very, very poor standards," she said. "We're talking about daily rates of €1,000 for one person per month in Berlin. No apartment should cost that much in Berlin. That doesn't even include any support services, nothing at all."

At the moment, charities say the situation on the housing market is so desperate that many people are stuck in mass shelters for years at a time. The government's new plan is an attempt to tackle that. But for the activists, it's little more than a statement of intent.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight