Competition for Cots: Cities Struggle to Handle Rise in Homeless

By Fidelius Schmid and Andreas Ulrich

Homeless people hoping to find accomodation line up outside a shelter in Hamburg. Zoom
Mauricio Bustamante

Homeless people hoping to find accomodation line up outside a shelter in Hamburg.

With frigid temperatures outside, German homeless and emergency shelters are usually full this time of year. But a rising number of homeless people, many from other EU states, are exceeding their capacities and triggering competition for limited cots and resources.

The doors won't open for another two hours, but Gerd doesn't want to take the risk of being turned away this time. "I was too late yesterday and didn't get a bed," the 57-year-old says. His thin, blond hair is sticking to his head, he has scabs on his forehead and chin, and his breath reeks of schnapps.

Gerd would rather spend the afternoon standing in the rain than go away empty-handed again. Three Africans and seven Eastern Europeans are also standing in line. The Hamburg winter emergency shelter program, with its makeshift accommodations in a former office building near the city's central train station, offers 230 beds. Since it can't accommodate all comers on most evenings, some of Hamburg's homeless are forced to sleep on tables and chairs.

Munich, Stuttgart, Cologne and other German cities face a similar problem: There are more people seeking help than there is space in homeless and emergency shelters. The homeless population in Germany has grown sharply in recent years, partly because of a growing influx of destitute Romanians, Bulgarians and other Eastern Europeans. Since their native countries joined the European Union in 2007, Bulgarians and Romanians have been able to enter Germany without visas or residence permits.

Some who have little money or skills, but wish to stay longer than three months, register a business, often a fictitious one, and then work illegally in construction for as little as €3 ($4) an hour. In 2011, the number of Bulgarians in Germany grew by more than 22,000, while that of Romanians went up by 36,000. Thousands of the new immigrants are college graduates, skilled workers or university students, but they also include day laborers and beggars. The poorest end up in homeless shelters, either because they have no money or abuse the emergency shelters as free hotels.

The German Association of Cities complains that municipalities are left to deal with the consequences of "poverty migration" from Eastern Europe, and that cities don't have enough resources to provide housing and medical care to all the new arrivals.

Abusing the System

Conditions in Germany's emergency shelters expose the flipside of the largess of an open Europe. The immigrants from the East are triggering a fight for survival on the margins of society among people who have almost nothing.

"Immigration is a problem that has been growing for years," and yet policymakers have been tight-lipped about it for just as long, says Thomas Specht, managing director of the German Federal Task Force on Homelessness (BAG). According to its figures, in 2011, more than 15 percent of the people in assistance programs for the homeless were foreigners. The actual, current percentage of immigrants in assistance programs "is probably higher," says Specht, especially in major cities and in winter emergency assistance programs, additional shelters set up to prevent homeless people from freezing to death during the cold months when extra capacity is often needed.

The latter are bare-bones emergency overnight shelters, where experts estimate that half of visitors are foreigners. In a shelter on Spaldingstrasse in Hamburg, about two-thirds are from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland. On one occasion, a bus from Romania pulled up to the building and unloaded 12 day laborers. When customs officials recently checked the papers of shelter visitors, they discovered that eight allegedly homeless men had registered businesses and were presumably working as low-wage laborers. Economic migrants "abuse the winter emergency program and take away space from the homeless," says Detlef Scheele, responsible for the social portfolio for the city-state of Hamburg.

Worries about Making Things Too Attractive

Scheele, a Social Democrat, is presumably referring to people like Johnny, who knows how to work with sheetrock but would also work as a waiter. Or Claudio, who will take any job he can get, or Nello, a tractor driver. His wife and his youngest daughter are living in his son's studio apartment in Cologne, but there isn't enough space there for him.

All three are waiting outside the doors of the former veterinary office at Cologne's Eifelwall streetcar station, which opens at 7 p.m. There are about 30 people there, and the most common language being spoken is Romanian. Nello has been sleeping there for the last six months, but he hasn't found a job yet. "Going back isn't an option," he says. "There is nothing for me at home, only poverty."

The facility, which opened this winter, was set up to accommodate the overflow from the regular homeless shelter. It provides bed linens, towels, hot showers and sandwiches, which is more than some of the homeless have in Eastern Europe. In the emergency shelter, people sleep on cots without pillows, and food is not provided. But at least the heat works.

The spartan accommodations represent Cologne's effort to handle the influx. In nearby Dortmund, the city administration takes the position that homeless people from other EU countries "were not homeless in their native countries but, instead, deliberately made themselves homeless by traveling as EU citizens," and thus should not be entitled to stay in German homeless shelters. According to a city spokesman, those who still have no place to stay after 10:30 p.m., when it gets very cold, can spend the night in a holding area.

Until last year, Munich tried to accommodate homeless people from Eastern Europe with its winter assistance program. Then, it also created a special solution for people "without the right to accommodation," that is, immigrants. The Protestant Relief Organization Munich operates two emergency shelters on the grounds of the former Bayernkaserne military barracks, which provide 176 spaces in bunk beds in one building and 39 in another. However, the Bayernkaserne only opens when outside temperatures drop below freezing or there is a severe winter storm.

The authorities in various cities are worried about making their accommodations for the homeless seem too attractive, as no city wants to become a magnet for a new group of homeless people. "The word quickly spreads about places where conditions are good, prompting local officials to worry that everyone will come to their city," says a social worker who prefers to remain anonymous.

The word has also spread that funds are getting tighter now that more of the needy are coming from Eastern Europe. "They haven't made things easier," says Karl-Heinz, who is sitting in the Gulliver day facility for the homeless under a bridge near Cologne's cnetral station, together two other men named Rolf and Dirk. The facility offers showers for 50 cents and free mobile-phone charging. It's become more difficult to find a seat, says Rolf, although that isn't the biggest problem for him and his friends. "We make less money begging because they're here," says Dirk, referring to homeless from abroad, "and we don't find as many deposit bottles because they're also looking for them."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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