How do people become homeless

Homelessness in Germany

• You don't get homeless just like that. Anyone who has rent debts and is in danger of losing their apartment is usually no longer a stranger to the authorities. If a landlord files an eviction claim with the court, a message is automatically sent to the social welfare office. This writes a letter to the tenant, offers help, mediates between him and the landlord and often also pays the rent. The tenant only has to take a small but decisive step: he has to open the letter - and react.

But that's where it often fails. "Office-oriented communication", as Christine Heinrichs from the Frankfurter Verein für Sozial Heimstätten e.V. calls it, often bypasses those affected. "When the social welfare office has written the third letter, it will be there with all the other unopened letters," says Heinrichs. And then the disaster takes its course.

The best way to become homeless is to pretend to be dead.

Many municipalities only react again when the person in need is on the street after the eviction. In Frankfurt, where Christine Heinrichs has worked for the homeless for 25 years, the so-called outreach help is used. If the letters are not answered by the office, employees of the Frankfurt Association ring the doorbell and try to get in touch. That is difficult, because most of the time people have withdrawn too much into their own world.

Heinrichs and their employees keep hearing the same story: first the woman was gone, then the alcohol came, then the job was gone, and now the apartment is in danger. The others are to blame. According to Heinrichs, this language regulation is an auxiliary construction so that you don't have to admit: "Something's wrong with me." The responsibility is shifted to the outside.

Heinrichs calls this attitude structurally conservative, the inability to change leads to the loss of the ability to act. It would actually take you and your employees three months to help people. In fact, they usually only have two weeks to evacuate.

"We then run after people on the street and try to get them to the appropriate facilities as quickly as possible," she says. Because once someone lives on the street, returning to the old life is extremely difficult. And the necessary help becomes really expensive.

The city of Hamburg alone spent 46 million euros on the homeless in 2011. In addition, there is money from numerous charitable institutions, aid associations and the church. A little more than 1000 people live on the streets of the Hanseatic city. Around 2,700 are housed in public housing and emergency shelters. If you were to pay these people the rent for a small apartment each, it would be considerably cheaper for the city.

"Paying for homelessness is seven times more expensive than preventing homelessness," quotes Harald Ansen, professor of social work and poverty expert at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, a study by the German Association of Cities.

"The most expensive is the help to the sick," says Christine Heinrichs. For example, a transport to a hospital costs 700 to 800 euros. "We have peak cases in Frankfurt that are brought in up to ten times a month. That can easily add up to 5,000 to 8,000 euros," she says. There are also costs for emergency accommodation, health and social programs and communication with citizens.

Why are you not doing anything? Why don't you get these people off the street? Christine Heinrichs has to do every day with calls from angry Frankfurters who find it difficult to explain why 45 employees are trying to help the homeless and yet reach their limits. "We can't catch anyone, lock them up, force wash them. And then they come out full and clean," she says. Everyone has the right to live the way they want - even on the street. "In a city you have to come to terms with the fact that there are people whom you actually cannot help at all," says Heinrichs. "The citizens have to endure that."

More living space would be nice - but it doesn't solve the problem

The poverty researcher Harald Ansen distinguishes three large groups among the homeless:

- People in critical life situations, because of a separation, the loss of work or debts.

- Young people who are dismissed from youth welfare institutions in an unregulated manner with large biographical gaps.

- People with broken biographies, who have always lived on the margins, often with high professional mobility, such as seafarers.

The main problem, according to Ansen, is the lack of affordable housing. According to a study by the Pestel Institute, there is a lack of 110,000 social housing in Hamburg.

But they alone do not solve the problem. There are homeless people who no longer want an apartment at all, who do not want to leave their social environment, who can no longer endure cramped spaces and the rules of neighborly coexistence.

Nicole Serocka from the Hamburg Social Services Authority knows cases in which people were assigned an apartment and then spent the night in the hallway with their sleeping bags. Many also return to the streets voluntarily. This is called the revolving door effect. "Such behavior has to be laboriously corrected," says Harald Ansen. When people have settled in such living conditions over the years, it shapes their self-image. It is difficult for many to break away from the identity of the outcast.

For Christine Heinrichs, the problem goes far beyond clinging to a false self-image. The lack of living space is also not an argument for them. "I've been working in the homeless for 25 years, and the group of people affected is not getting bigger or smaller. The number of those who do not want or cannot go back remains the same." People who can no longer pay their rent and are evacuated can find new living space relatively quickly and do not become homeless because there is a good help network. The people who actually end up on the street usually have other problems as well. "There is not a single person in Frankfurt who is even partially mentally healthy," she says.

Heinrichs does not see an exchange between these two groups. "We look after around 150 people per night in the residential accommodation in Frankfurt. 90 of them are there all the time, and the others leave relatively quickly. Because they still have goals."

Homelessness therefore arises from life crises and the inability to deal with them and to accept help in times of need. Often a mental illness is to blame. Life on the street is dangerous and the life expectancy of the homeless is significantly lower. And the way back to normal life is difficult.

The most famous emergency quarter in Hamburg, the Pik As, will celebrate its 100th birthday next year. No need to celebrate. The accommodation is fully booked even in summer. One of the residents has lived there for 38 years. -