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What it's like to be homeless during Germany's winter

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What it's like to be homeless during Germany's winter
A homeless woman in Frankfurt am Main. Photo: DPA
16:14 CET+01:00
Hundreds of thousands of people in Germany don't have a home - and during the winter, cold weather and illness can put them in life-threatening situations.

Kurt doesn't have a home, but that doesn't stop him smiling as he offers his homeless newspaper to Christmas crowds in the centre of Mainz in Rhineland-Palatinate.

“I'm happy that the authorities don't mind me putting up my tent under the bridge in the evening,” he says, when asked where he sleeps.

The 44-year-old is one of around 335,000 homeless people who live in Germany. While many are offered beds in hostels, an unknown number sleep on the streets. In the winter their situation becomes particularly precarious.

Many of them are already weak, says Werena Rosenke from the Federal Organization for Helping the Homeless (BAG). If they get sick there is a real danger they could die of hypothermia, even in a milder winter.

Since 1991 the BAG estimates that at least 289 homeless people have frozen to death. Last year there were three deaths through hypothermia, one in Berlin, one in Saxony and one in Baden-Württemberg.

“I'm afraid of the winter,” says 31-year-old Ioannis from Romania, who is begging in the pedestrian zone in Mainz. “I'm on the street every day, and every night I sleep against a house wall.”

Ioannis collects between €15 and €20 a day, just enough to survive.

“The state doesn't help, the churches don't help,” he complains.

People from Romania have no right to state welfare, explains Beate Jagusch from Caritas, the Catholic Church's charity.

“Nobody has responsibility for them. It's tragic that we can't offer them anything more than a cup of hot tea and a place to warm up.”

This winter the Protestant Church in Mainz has erected containers to house homeless people. But on the first day, 15 people were sent away as there was only sleeping room for 24 people.

Local authorities also have a responsibility to ensure that homeless people have a place to sleep.

“That is especially true in the cold months when when local authorities have to offer suitable housing so that people don't freeze to death,” said a spokesperson for the social affairs ministry in Rhineland-Palatinate.

Roughly every third homeless person in Mainz comes from eastern Europe, says Klaus Merten, a director of the Catholic Church's help organization there. Many of them once worked in farming but had to stop work because of illness. Others were cheated out of their wages but won't go home out of shame.

It is a similar story throughout the country. The BAG estimates that 50 to 60 percent of homeless people in major German cities are from other EU countries.

“Every story is different,” says Merten. “They are very individual stories for why people have fallen out of their lives.”

One person he knew once ran a big company, but after his wife died he gave up his home and moved to the streets.

Another story is that of Angelika, who worked as a dental assistant for 20 years. But when she gave up her job due to her depression and stopped receiving money from her insurer, she became homeless.

Now 49, she has a one-room apartment again thanks to a pension, but still begs on the street during the day.

“When I've paid for everything with my pension, I have €250 left each month - that's simply not enough,” she says.

Kurt says he prefers selling a newspaper to begging. For each one he sells he earns 75 cents.

“I had no idea it would be this hard to get back on my feet,” the 44-year-old admits.

Kurt has been living on the street for a year since he suffered burnout and lost his job. In 2017 he says he will “look for a small apartment so that I can get back into normal life again.”

“I know I can't give up on myself, otherwise I've lost.”

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