More and more homeless people from Eastern Europe are drawn to Germany. How can they be helped? Examples from Berlin, Cologne and Munich.
A Pole in downtown Stuttgart, January 2016 Photo: imago/lichtgut
The yellow-painted hallways and the rooms with folding beds on which folded sheets and blankets lie look sober. But what is starting in Cologne’s Vorgebirgsstrabe is a kind of showcase project: the emergency overnight shelter is to be aimed specifically at homeless people from other EU countries.
"There are 90 sleeping places in the facility, and as soon as we get the furniture, we’ll also open the daytime offering in the same building," says Andreas Hecht, department head at Cologne-based Sozialdienst Katholischer Manner e.V., which runs the house. The facility now offers overnight accommodations for those seeking help of all nationalities during the winter season as part of the cold weather program.
But in April, the newly renovated house is to be continued as an overnight shelter especially for homeless people from other EU countries, including a counseling center for job search, accommodation or return home.
Cologne is thus at the forefront of a political discussion that is smoldering in many city administrations: Should homeless people from other EU countries, who otherwise spend the night in sleeping bags and tents somewhere in parks or under bridges, be provided with better and more targeted places to sleep? Or should we rather not, so as not to create a "breeding ground" that attracts poor people from Romania, Bulgaria or Poland to German cities?
No sense of home
As a rule, homeless EU citizens are not entitled to Hartz IV benefits or permanent accommodation in a hostel. But in German metropolises there are soup kitchens, returnable bottles, homeless newspapers for sale, places to sleep at least during the cold spell, sometimes odd jobs: that can be more attractive than the situation in the country of origin.
Hecht is familiar with the debate about the "sogeffect" and takes a critical view of it. "People are here anyway," he says, "we advise people. After all, we don’t offer permanent dormitory places."
In Vorgebirgsstrabe, people have to go out during the day and can’t come back to sleep until the evening. Everyone has to identify themselves. A permanent feeling of home is not to be created. The standard is "deliberately no better than in other homeless facilities," says Hecht. The city of Cologne finances the project with at least 650,000 euros a year.
Klaus Honigschnabel, spokesman for the Inner Mission in Munich, can also "not observe such a "breeding ground" effect. Although standards have improved somewhat in Munich, this has not led to an increase in the number of homeless people from the EU, he said.
No booze, no dogs
Often the hope for work has brought Romanians and Bulgarians to Germany, says the spokesman. Some EU citizens find jobs every now and then, near the main train station in Munich there is the so-called "Arbeiterstrich", where casual jobbers wait for offers.
How many are there?
There are no official statistics. The Federal Association for Assistance to the Homeless (BAG W) estimates that there are around 860,000 homeless people in Germany. Many of them are mentally ill or addicted. Around 52,000 of the homeless are homeless, i.e. do not have a permanent place in a home.
Who are they?
More than half of the homeless are refugees. Some homeless EU citizens have had casual jobs in Germany but lost them.
All those seeking help, including EU citizens, can spend the night in winter in a former barracks, the so-called Bayernkaserne, as emergency accommodation. The Munich City Council has now decided to keep the Bayernkaserne open for the homeless in summer for the first time. "In winter, there are 850 places to sleep, and then another 300 in summer," Honigschnabel reports.
However, those seeking help must first identify themselves and register at a counseling center. They receive a briefing there, which is only valid for seven nights at a time in the Bayernkaserne, but can be renewed. With the briefing in hand, they can travel free of charge by bus and train, for example from the main train station to the Bayernkaserne. They also have to get out of their sleeping quarters during the day.
However, quite a few homeless people do not want to go to a shelter at all, because they have to register their names in the process, because they are not allowed to bring alcohol or dogs into the sleeping quarters. This is a deterrent and people therefore prefer to stay somewhere outside in a tent and sleeping bag.
From taboo to permanent topic
But tent camps in public spaces are cleared again and again, as in Munich a few weeks ago a camp in the city center and in Berlin a camp near the main train station.
In Berlin, employees of the "Frostschutzengel" project run by the social welfare organization Gebewo have been taking care of Eastern European homeless people since 2013. They go to emergency overnight stays, soup kitchens or warming rooms and offer advice in Bulgarian, Russian or Polish, among other languages.
Five years ago, the authorities were not even allowed to talk about the fact that more and more Poles were coming to the emergency shelters, reports Robert Veltmann, managing director of Gebewo. The providers were afraid that they would lose their funding if they helped this clientele. "Today, the whole city is talking about it," says Veltmann. The Eastern European homeless have become so many here that looking away is no longer an option.
"Poverty is becoming international," said Berlin’s Social Senator Elke Breitenbach (Left Party) recently. Since August 2018, there has been a new project by the Catholic Caritas, Stadtmission and Gebewo, which is tailored to homeless EU citizens.
Camps – clear or leave?
Similar to the Frost Guardian Angels, multilingual social workers make contact at the drop-in centers for the homeless and clarify in one-on-one meetings who has what claims. The project costs the Senate around 300,000 euros a year.
The debate about how to deal with the homeless in Berlin only boiled up again last week: After the taz published a video of the brutal eviction of a homeless camp near the main train station, state politicians were outraged.
Social Senator Breitenbach now wants to reach an agreement with the districts on a uniform way of dealing with such camps. If she has her way, the camps will be tolerated for a certain period of time so that social workers can work with the residents, who often include Eastern Europeans, to find solutions.
The mayor of Berlin Mitte, Stephan von Dassel (Greens), immediately rejected this idea. The danger was too great that giant camps or many small camps would be created, he told the taz.
Voluntary return or deportation
"We don’t want to deport anyone," Dieter Puhl, the longtime head of the Bahnhofsmission am Zoo, recently said of the debate about EU citizens. However, he said, there must be more offers in cooperation with the home countries to encourage people to return.
A Polish foundation has already sent two social workers to Berlin to try to persuade their compatriots to return. The district of Neukolln, on the other hand, sends Eastern European homeless people back to their countries of origin in buses, said Social City Councilor Jochen Biedermann (Greens). "This is a voluntary offer for people who have been lured here under other auspices."