Almost 680,000 people in Germany are homeless. Many of them dream of having a place of their own. The initiative “Housing First,” which started in the USA, aims to make this dream a reality.

The basic idea is a simple one. Homeless people are given a place of their own, without preconditions, even if they’re addicted to drugs or mentally ill.

The thinking behind this is that problems like addiction can be addressed more easily when someone is in a stable environment.

After they move in, the new tenants aren’t required to accept additional help or participate in support programs, either. Everything is done on a voluntary basis, including follow-up support.

We represent a paradigm shift in housing assistance,” says Julia von Lindern, a social worker with “fiftyfifty” who’s in charge of the “Housing First” initiative.

It’s a question of attitude, whether we work on the premise that people must first be capable of living in a place before they’re allowed to move in. We think the best way for people to learn how to keep house is for them to keep house.

The statistics speak for the initiative. Various studies have put the program’s success rate, measured by the number of participants who stay in their apartments, at high percentages of between 75% and 90%. “fiftyfifty”‘s experience confirms this.

Of the 62 people who have benefited from the program so far, only four (6.5%) have returned to the streets.

Housing First was first developed in New York and had a clear target group: long-term homeless people with mental illnesses and addiction issues.

Since then, the approach has been adopted elsewhere in the USA, in a modified form, as well as in several European countries.

Finland has even declared it its national strategy — and it’s the only European Union member country where homelessness statistics have gone down.

They’re integrating the stance of the Housing First approach — that every person has a right to somewhere to live — and it’s become policy. This is something we still have to achieve in Germany.

Finland is also doing things that weren’t envisaged in the original “Housing First” initiative. The Scandinavian country has converted entire emergency shelters into apartments. This means that former homeless people live alongside others in the same situation.

In Germany, the “Housing First” approach is only tentatively being taken up as part of the program of helping the homeless. Düsseldorf and Berlin are making progress with their own projects. However, cities like Cologne, Bremen and Hanover are now also following suit.

 Julia von Lindern, social worker with fiftyfifty in Düsseldorf. (DW/L. Hänel)

The biggest obstacle is always the highly competitive and capitalist style housing market, especially in big cities. So the organization buys the apartments itself, using money from donations and the sale of artworks — so, as the owners, they’re also the landlords.

Most of the apartments that “fiftyfifty” buys are located outside city centers. “We’ve given ourselves the guideline of not spending more than €3,000 ($3,305) per square meter,” says Julia von Lindern.

On average, the organization spends between €70,000 and €90,000 on buying an apartment. That’s a lot of money, but it actually works out cheaper than traditional housing support, where one year of assisted living can cost around €167,000 per person.

Deutsche Welle / ABC Flash Point Poverty News 2019.

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