Homelessness in the pandemic: street instead of dormitory

Many homeless people avoid emergency shelters. But the city of Hamburg does not want to house them in hotels. But private initiatives show that this is possible.

Winter in Hamburg: Thirteen people have died on the streets in a few weeks Photo: Miguel Ferraz

Hamburg’s Schanzenpark is covered in white snow, the sky shines blue, hooting children sled down the slope at the foot of the water tower. They don’t seem to notice the cold at all.

A few hundred meters away, Andi is standing in front of the supermarket, waiting for winter to pass. He is in hibernation, he says, just surviving.

Andi just turned 60 and has been living on the street with his dog Juli – pretty much since forever, he says. Even now, when it’s cold, he doesn’t want to go to a collective shelter. He doesn’t believe they really want to help him there. "I’m tough," he says. "Of course, it would still be nice if I wasn’t frozen in the corner tomorrow, I know a few there too." He laughs.

In fact, up to thirteen homeless people have already died in Hamburg since December. The information on this varies. Just a man was found dead at the Landungsbrucken. He had repeatedly been made aware of the city’s winter emergency program, reports the association "Leben im Abseits" on Facebook, but in no case had he wanted to go to a mass shelter.

Several citizens’ initiatives had repeatedly called for adequate housing for homeless people in recent weeks. "It’s a huge disaster, people are becoming destitute before our very eyes," warns Christiane Hartkopf, who distributes sleeping bags with the privately organized "cold bus" and offers to take homeless people to the winter emergency program. The weather and coronalage drastically aggravated the situation of homeless people.

Andi, lives on the street even in winter

"I’m tough. Of course, it would still be nice if I wasn’t lying frozen in the corner tomorrow."

Since March, most of the day care facilities have been closed and the possibilities for staying have been severely limited. Social workers and day facilities reported that many of the homeless had decreased drastically during this time. They lacked places to rest and socialize. Hygiene policies were not enforced in some facilities, Hartkopf said.

She sharply criticized the city’s adherence to housing homeless people in collective accommodations. Many initiatives and also the parliamentary groups of the CDU and the Left Party demand individual accommodation because of the risk of infection.

Social Senator Melanie Leonhard (SPD) had still justified the community accommodation on Tuesday in the social committee: "We as a city could not provide this high number of people so easily decentralized." This was not a question of money, but a question of "setting priorities and professionalism". From the authority’s point of view, it is not possible to provide adequate professional care in the context of individual accommodation.

Yet her agency has also long since begun to change course: In addition to the more than 1,000 sleeping places in mass accommodations, the city provided 35 single rooms at the beginning of February. According to the social welfare authority, many places remain vacant on a regular basis. During their tours with the cold bus, they have nevertheless been turned away several times because of overcrowding, Hartkopf reports.

The city undoubtedly offers help, but the concepts are outdated, says Stephan Karrenbauer, a social worker at the street magazine Hinz&Kunzt. In addition to the fear of theft and violence, the psychological strain in large accommodations should not be underestimated. It can be crushing, he says, to have to confront the situation of destitution and the large number of others affected every evening. "Right now, during Corona, homeless people need the best possible protection – actually, according to those standards that currently prevail in old people’s homes," Karrenbauer said. A large number of them are physically battered from life on the streets and belong to the high-risk group, she said.

A project last spring showed how successful the individual accommodation of homeless people is: Hinz&Kunzt, the Diakonie and the Cafee mit Herz had accommodated about 170 people in empty hotels financed by donations. Although the personnel costs there were high, because the hotel guests stabilized and were more accessible, it was possible to reduce the use of street social work, it says in a review.

Currently, 120 people are again accommodated in hotels and hostels. A donation from the Reemtsma company and the North Church had made it possible at the beginning of December to resume the project with 120 places until the end of April.

The association "Strabenblues" has additionally accommodated 40 homeless people in the youth hostel at Stintfang, also financed by donations.

The city still strictly refuses to participate in the hotel accommodation. "There can be no cost reasons for this," complains Christiane Hartkopf. A hotel room costs around 30 euros per person for one night. If you extrapolate that, it means that at most half of the city’s budget of around ten million euros is tied up, and the rest can easily be used to finance supplies and social work support, says Hartkopf.

Tent camps with heated sleeping facilities

"I feel like they’re doing this for themselves and not for us," Andi says of the emergency program. "What are they doing with the money if he has to crash there under the bridge?" he says, pointing to a mattress camp on Schulterblatt.

For people like Andi, it is difficult to find urban accommodation – dogs are usually unwanted there. But in Schanzenpark, the cafe and cultural center Schroedingers has now set up a tent camp with heated sleeping facilities for homeless people with animals in the old Norwegian home. With an appeal at the weekend, the necessary donations in kind were quickly collected and volunteers were found to provide security at night, say the initiators.

One must be careful, with the current credo "Keep your distance!" not to take distance from the plight of the homeless, says Hartkopf. Many homeless people report that they feel less noticed. Yet, he says, it is currently more important than ever for the city to address the needs of the homeless and for its fellow residents to be attentive. "Winter is cold and winter is now!" said Hartkopf.

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