Homeless people in Germany freeze to death while thousands of hotel beds remain empty. To help people, they need to be included.
Life-threatening cold: Despite the danger, some homeless people avoid available emergency sleeping places Photo: Stefan Zeitz/imago
The Corona crisis further exacerbates existing inequalities, making them more visible. That is a sad certainty after almost a year of the pandemic. Homelessness is no exception.
According to the Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Wohnungslosenhilfe, 17 people have already frozen to death on Germany’s streets this winter, and the number of unreported cases is likely to be much higher. At the same time, thousands of hotel beds are empty. This painfully illustrates the fundamentally problematic treatment of homeless people in this country.
People living on the streets are among the groups most affected by the corona crisis. The low temperatures these days turn the predicament into a life-threatening one.
Some cities are now offering homeless people accommodation in hotels over the winter. A hostel with 200 places opened in Berlin at the weekend, and Dusseldorf already rented beds in six hotels in November. Frankfurt am Main is planning something similar, but cannot find enough hoteliers willing to accommodate homeless people for the low flat rate. Munich, after all, has 160 places to isolate Covid-19 infected people. The question is, why only now and why so hesitantly? It would be easy to oblige hoteliers to accommodate the homeless, as long as they were reimbursed for a large part of their financial losses by the state.
For an answer, it is worth taking a look at Hamburg. There, the red-green senate rejected accommodation in hotels only a few days ago. The reasoning: There are enough places in the emergency shelters, and there is also an extensive counseling program there.
But the emergency shelters are avoided by many homeless people. Even before the pandemic, they were considered a source of infection for all kinds of diseases. Although the number of beds has been reduced and hygiene measures improved, many are still afraid of infection. Social welfare organizations also view emergency shelters as an unsuitable accommodation option for homeless people.
The well-intentioned roll
The Hamburg Senate’s justification reveals a paternalistic logic that people without shelter face every day. Those in need have no demands to make. Be it the well-intentioned bread roll in the subway or the shelter in which one finds only a few hours of sleep due to the screams of the mentally ill bed neighbor: Homeless people should be happy if they survive.
The consequence of this view is that people without shelter are rarely included in the decisions that affect them. If people in Hamburg had been asked how they could best be helped, the Senate might know that emergency shelters are out of the question for many of them because pets are not allowed there, or because they cannot go there with their reference groups, alcohol is prohibited, or they cannot usually stay there during the day.
Quite a few find this treatment degrading and prefer to sleep on the streets, in parks or in makeshift dwellings, despite the most adverse circumstances. It is difficult to reach these people with the help offered by the state. A start would be to meet them at eye level and ask about their needs: Would you like to spend the winter in a hotel? If not, how can we improve your situation?
Instead, people prefer to be pushed back and forth with regulatory measures. In Berlin, for example, a camp with over a hundred residents was evicted in the middle of the night and without warning last weekend under the pretext of protection from the cold. They were offered to move into a hostel until the end of April. Only half of the residents accepted the offer, the rest are sleeping on the street again without any belongings.
The sad reality is that homelessness is part of the normal state of affairs in capitalism. Scarce housing, rising rents and a social system designed to discipline rather than help mean that even the middle classes are increasingly at risk of slipping into homelessness. The pandemic will further exacerbate the situation. So we should start taking people without shelter seriously, treating them as equals and giving them a dignified life even on the streets.