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Homelessness in Germany
The visible form of true poverty
by Andrea Bistrich

An analysis of how/why some 860,000 people are homeless in Germany, which like most nations, has no governmental structure to address this human rights problem.   

Munich, Germany
They are known as "tramps", "winos", "hobos", "street people", "bums", or simply
homeless. They are the poor within our rich society, unemployed and with no resources, living on the fringes. In official terms they are called "people in social distress" or more commonly "homeless". In the terms of social federal welfare laws they are classified as "people who roam with no secure form of income, singles without a home-address and regular employment capable of being taxed for social security, without a secured mode of existence and often without a sound relationship to either family or other community members.... people whose social problems prevent them from participating in community life."

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Officially they do not exist. The numbers of homeless in Germany are not registered in any governmental statistics; the only estimates were made by independent institutions offering social services. One of these institutions is the Bundesarbeitgemeinschaft Wohnungslosenhilfe (BAG), a labour organization which aids the homeless. BAG has long demanded official governmental statistics as an indicator of housing required, but to no avail. Estimates, however, indicate that there are approximately 591,000 homeless people in Germany; if you add in the number of homeless immigrants the total adds up to approximately 860,000 people. By way of comparison, that is the size of Cologne, Germany’s fourth-largest city.

Who are the homeless? Almost a third are women, nearly the same number are young people and children, and 39 per cent are men. As if the statistics weren’t bad enough, BAG estimates that a further one million people are under threat of homelessness or living in sub-standard housing.

Is homelessness harder for some than for others? Most definitely, since it is easier for families to get temporary accommodation than for single people. This means that approximately 35,000 single people face life on the street.

Just how tough is it being homeless in Germany? According to BAG, in the winter of 1996/1997, 27 people froze to death on the streets of Germany, one of the world’s most prosperous nations.

Women and homelessness

Women in deep financial distress often feel ashamed of their situation and avoid institutional help for as long as possible. In order to have a roof over their heads many are forced into compromising relationships or else return to partners whom they had left due to escalating conflicts: 37.5 per cent of women lose their homes, according to one survey, following separation or divorce from partners/husbands. A surprising number (21.5 per cent) become homeless on leaving the parental home and approximately 10 per cent flee (sexual) violence from partner/husband. Other reasons include eviction for either overdue rent or conflict with the landlord. There is insufficient support for women at risk of becoming homeless: nationwide there are only 15 emergency advice agencies specially for women, and women’s boarding houses and overnight accommodation are generally rare. The women stay either in mixed homes or are rejected due to a lack of emergency facilities specifically for women.

Female poverty-risks in Germany

  • Women in Germany earn on average 30 per cent less than men;
  • 90 per cent of all part-time and minor jobs are occupied by women;
  • 70 per cent of all jobs not covered by social security are held by women; this means lower unemployment benefits and lower pensions;
  • the old-age pensions for women are less than half of that for men.



One million children in poverty

pov2-399.jpg (15060 bytes)The following news recently hit German media: one million children are increasingly affected by poverty and are receiving governmental aid in addition to current child support, according to the Children’s Commission of the Bundestag (Federal authorities). For many the shocking news is that poverty can no longer be considered a problem of fringe groups but one that is pushing further into the centre of society. The rise in unemployment was named as the main cause by the committee. Often an average family with two children runs into financial difficulty when one parent loses their job. The situation is static: the prospect of a turn-around in the German employment situation is unlikely with unemployment currently 4.8 million nationwide.

The unemployment connection

When one enquires into the causes of homelessness, the finger points to the close link between homelessness and employment — as unemployment rises, so does the number of homeless people and the appearance of new "career" homeless. For many who have become homeless there is little professional training; many have learnt a trade — mining, for example — that is no longer needed, or otherwise had jobs that have been especially affected by downsizing or automation. Since, in their situation, there is little or no chance of finding employment, many accept part-time work in, for example, the building or catering trades, or take illegal part-time work — all without insurance. Rent arrears head the list of reasons for homelessness. For families at risk of becoming homeless, the average rent owed is DM3,210* per household.

The ailing job market, lack of skills training and financial difficulties are not the only factors involved: social, psychological and health problems may also speed the slide into homelessness. Roughly 30 per cent were either permanently or partially raised in children’s homes or by parents with psychological problems; many are alcoholic; 20 to 30 per cent have criminal records or have been in prison.

Psychological instability is not only a cause but also a consequence. Living on the streets with no security causes illness. One of the largest surveys to date, published early in 1998, regarding psychological health among the homeless in Germany, observed that 50 per cent of those living in lodgings and hostels were psychologically ill: 77.9 per cent had suffered from mental illness or from the effects of stimulant-abuse.

Help — but how?

Until now the "problem of homelessness" has been left to the community. A cohesive national structure does not exist and in most cases the individual aid-groups are unaware of projects in other states.

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In Munich, Germany’s third largest city, with a population of 1.3 million, conditions are comparatively good; public support, partly in co-operation with charities, helps to alleviate the plight of the homeless. Among the numerous general facilities for the homeless are centres and overnight accommodation specifically for women (with or without children); residential establishments for ex-prisoners and those in danger of committing offenses; live-in communities with supervision; rehabilitation centres; tea houses; advisory centres; short-term sleeping accommodation and employment offers; therapy centres for addicts.

Approximately 5,120 homeless people living in Munich have been accommodated in provisional shelters — for example in municipal accommodation run by the church or in social apartments rented by the city, or in pensions (commonly three to four per room). A further 600 actually sleep on the streets, 50 of them women. Many wish to remain independent rather than live with strangers in cramped conditions; others are severely alcoholic, dulled and with no wish to be either therapeutically treated or rehabilitated; while others have recently become homeless and do not know where to obtain help. The fear of bureaucracy prevents others from being reintegrated.

In the winter of 1996/97 the readers of the Süddeutsche Zeitung donated a mobile medical practice to the homeless of Munich; a doctor and nurse are on duty round the clock. Each year about DM100,000 is spent on the project, including DM15,000-worth of free medications.

One example of alerting the public to the homeless issue was the nationwide campaign held in September 1998 under the motto: ‘The city belongs to all — a campaign against discrimination of the homeless and poor’. Also, there are currently around 45 street-magazines, distributed by the homeless for the homeless, in Germany’s main cities — the sellers retaining a percentage of the sale price.

The future

Despite the intensive efforts and the large amount of aid offered in the cities — in rural areas the situation is still bad — the problem of homelessness in Germany cannot be concealed. Due to the complexity of the homeless problem there is no simple or quick solution. Barbara Stamm, the Bavarian employment and social affairs minister, declared in April 1997 that "Homelessness is the visible form of true poverty". To prevent a permanent problem from emerging a new housing policy must be developed — with social and political perspectives. With this in mind, BAG has demanded that the Federal Government and State create structures to help communities develop a more socially-aware housing policy, creating cheaper housing and integrating the homeless into mainstream housing as opposed to ghetto-like overcrowded lodgings.

*DM 1 = $1.75 approx.

From the  March 1999 issue of Share International

Articles about homelessness

FAQ on homelessness
Also see:
Articles on hunger and poverty
Articles on sharing
Articles on social justice issues
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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005