Keeping Drunks Off the Streets: Germany's First Drinking Room for Alcoholics

By Guido Kleinhubbert

The Sofa bar in the northern city of Kiel caters to a very particular clientele -- unemployed alcoholics. The experiment has been such a success that other cities are now hoping to follow suit.

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It's 10:30 a.m., and things are hopping at the Sofa bar in the northern German city of Kiel. The men sitting at the table on the left, in the front of the room, have already had their first four rounds of beer, the radio is blasting loud guitar riffs, and a young girl hops onto a patron's lap and asks him for a sip. A glass bottle is rolling back and forth on the floor, and the air is thick with cigarette smoke. Atze and Dirk sit at the bar, coughing, rolling unfiltered cigarettes and asking if anyone wants a drink.

The bar is the latest addition to Germany's social welfare state. And it's an establishment that has captured the attention of many other cities around the country.

The Sofa looks like any Eckkneipe, the small corner pubs with a working-class clientele that dot German cities, and about the same amount of alcohol is consumed here. It has roughly 70 regulars, aged from 18 to 70, football pennants hang on the walls, and a TV set above the bar, on the left side, is always on -- but usually with the sound turned down. However, there is one critical difference between the Sofa and other bars.

In this bar, some of the costs are covered by taxpayer money from the city treasury. The Sofa is Germany's first drinking room, a sort of crash smoking room for alcoholics. Most of the people who frequent the place are serious alcoholics and are allowed to bring their own cheap beer and sangria. The bar itself only serves soft drinks and strong coffee. "It's great," says Dirk, twisting his tattooed face into a smile, "isn't it?"

A Win-Win Situation

So far the Kiel experiment has worked. Unemployed alcoholics who are known to the authorities, and who had previously come into conflict with citizens during their drinking binges in the city's downtown area, have gradually moved to the more welcoming Sofa. It's an absolute win-win situation, says Christoph Schneider of the Kiel housing office, noting that it makes it "much easier to reach" these people.

This Kiel drinkers' paradise has caught the attention of government officials throughout Germany. Most German cities have similar problems, and city officials often call their colleagues in Kiel to hear about their experiences. Officials from two other cities, Freiburg and Hamburg, were so interested that they came to Kiel to get a first-hand look at the project. And Dortmund in western Germany will likely open its own version of Kiel's Sofa soon in its Nordstadt section, which is plagued by high unemployment.

Dortmund officials and residents have had enough of the stench of urine, playgrounds full of broken glass and drunks causing a disturbance late into the night. Most cities' attempts to solve the problem by removing drunks from public areas, imposing partial alcohol bans -- as in Hamburg's main train station -- or blaring classical music from loudspeakers have failed. The drunks simply moved on and caused trouble elsewhere.

The Sofa, on the other hand, was a success from the start. There are rarely aggressive confrontations, and anyone who does cause trouble is temporarily barred from the premises and forced to drink elsewhere for a few days. "The place is hopping," says Kai. He is 49, a recipient of benefits under the Hartz IV welfare reform program, and the employment agency considers him impossible to place. He does have a permanent residence, like most of the regulars. The homeless rarely turn up at the Sofa.

Capitulation by Social Workers?

Kai and his friends used to drink in front of the nearby Aldi supermarket, which was convenient because they were so close to the source. Then the supermarket manager gave them trouble and they had to move to a courtyard in front of a retirement home, but before long the benches there were removed. The solution was the Sofa, a joint venture between the city of Kiel and the Hempels social club, which also publishes a street newspaper.

Social worker Reinhard Böttner manages the Sofa. Sitting in his tiny office two floors above the bar, he says that he cannot understand how anyone could see the drinking room as a form of capitulation by social workers -- as a place to park alcoholic Hartz IV benefits recipients and young people without a high-school diploma or a future.

Böttner insists that he has to "unequivocally" object to such views. The Sofa, he says, is probably one of the few ways to gain access to the city's drinkers. "Do you think you can just walk into their scene and coax them?" he asks.

Böttner and his staff are trying a new, gentle approach, which they call "low-level offers." They don't push themselves on anyone, but they do give people advice when asked -- and they are often asked. They help people resolve problems with their landlords, electric utility companies or government offices. They give them information about recovery programs and offer regulars low-paying jobs behind the bar, in the attached soup kitchen or with the street newspaper.

"Some are now dry and have an ordinary daily routine once again," says Böttner, who plans to open a second such bar soon. He already knows who he wants to work behind the bar at Sofa, for a salary, and keep the peace: Kai, the man the employment agency says cannot be placed in a job.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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