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Slums in Deutschland? No, but ...

Volker Wagener
December 18, 2017

Slums like the favelas in Brazil don't exist in Germany. Poverty and homelessness are only visible at second glance, in part because social decline is less obvious.

Obdachlosigkeit in Köln
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

Germany is a welfare state. The network of social welfare via state, local and church outlets is more densely woven than in most comparable affluent societies. The economy is humming along, unemployment is at an historic low of under six percent, energy and food prices are lower than in many another European country.

But poverty exists in Germany, although without slums – because running water, electricity, sewage systems and garbage collection are a given even in the most basic lodgings.

The reasons for poverty, and who is affected:

- At present, about 860,000 people in Germany are homeless, according to estimates by the Federal Association for the Support of the Homeless (BAG W.) Some live in the streets, but more than 800,000 stay with friends or spend the nights in emergency shelters.

- About 52,000 people in Germany live in the streets, without a roof over their heads – that's a total of six percent of the people regarded as homeless.

- About 440,000 refugees have a legal right to an apartment. At present, they are still housed in mass accommodation.

- Women, families and migrants are hit the hardest. They are more frequently in danger of losing the roofs over their heads, even if they are rented apartments.

A man in Berlin collects bottles to make ends meet
Collecting recyclable bottles for small bottle deposits has long been a way for homeless and indigent people in Germany to scrape together a meager livingImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Steinberg

- The state's retreat from subsidized housing is one of the reasons. Thirty years ago, West Germany alone had four million rent-controlled apartments. Today, in a Germany that has grown much larger, that number has dwindled to 1.3 million. Affordable housing is rare; the market dictates the prices.

- Small apartments are particularly expensive. They are fought over in a country that meanwhile counts about 17 million one-person households with only 5.2 million one- and two-room apartments on the market. Extreme increases in rents in urban areas are the consequence.

Read more:

Rich vs. poor: How fair and equal is Germany?

German poverty rising despite economic growth

Germany's food pantries struggle to meet rising demand

Representatives of Germany's Off Road Kids foundations at work
Representatives of Germany's Off Road Kids foundation at workImage: Markus Seidel

- Counter to common prejudice, Romanians in Germany are more likely to hold down jobs than Germans or citizens from any of the other 11 Eastern European EU member states – the percentage is quoted as more than 68 percent. Migrants without jobs have no right to social benefits unless they have lived in Germany for at least five years or worked for a year in a job that paid social benefits. People who have neither quickly end up in the streets. That, the BAG W. argues, is illegal.

- Homeless people often move to large cities. The Bahnhofsmission – an emergency aid organization located in over 100 German train stations – estimates there are about 10,000 in Berlin alone, up from estimates of 2,000 homeless in Berlin 17 years ago. The cities offer more job opportunities and draw more tourists who may be willing to give alms to beggars. An estimated 60 percent of Germany's homeless are believed to hail from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland.

- Winter is the toughest season for homeless people. Despite rooms where they can warm up and additional shelters for the cold months, about 300 people have frozen to death since 1990, right here in wealthy Germany.

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