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Germany’s new government pledges to tackle homelessness

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dw– It’s quiet during the day at the Caritas shelter in Gesundbrunnen, a diverse and working-class area in northern Berlin. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t lots to do. Martin Parlow, a part-time employee who organizes the shelter for the Catholic social welfare organization, has food to buy, bills to pay and staff and resources to organize.

Every night, around 18 men come in out of the cold, he says. They’re here for a shower, a warm meal and a safe place to sleep. Some are drunk when they arrive. Others are running from the law for small-time offenses. Most are off the grid in Germany, coming from elsewhere in the European Union.

They go out again the next morning to face a variety of difficult circumstances: low-paid jobs or begging, struggles with addiction, and mental and physical ailments that go untreated. The elements are their enemy. “Some people have been coming here for years, which is strange and sad because this is a really basic accommodation,” Parlow, who oversees a team of eight workers, tells DW.

The shelter is warm but austere. The main sleeping area has the look of a cheap backpacker hostel: metal bunk beds spread out across a linoleum floor, divided by simple privacy screens. Many of the “guests,” the term Parlow uses for those who sleep here, come back every night and leave some basic possessions — slippers, hats, drinks and body products — at their bedsides.

Parlow is in his third year at the shelter, which means most of his experience has been under pandemic conditions. Despite widespread fear at the beginning, he said the shelter refused to stop its work when COVID-19 came to Germany, though adjustments had to be made, such as reducing the number of people accommodated in compliance with social distancing restrictions. There used to be 25 people allowed in on a night, he said, and more if a desperate situation called for it.

Masks, tests and contact tracing are luxuries. The staff is now vaccinated, as are some of the homeless people who come in — but that was months ago with the Johnson & Johnson shot, which might be less effective now.

Long-term problem, winter-only solution

“Our mission is to save lives by providing a warm bed,” Parlow explains. “When this system was created 30 or 40 years ago, people were dying out on the streets.”

The advantage of being open only at night and during the winter, he says, is that people can come without formalities — no papers shown, no questions asked. But there are many downsides. Running the night shelter is expensive — around €45 ($50.80) per bed, per night — despite the limited services offered. Berlin’s homeless network is moving towards a 24/7 model, says Parlow, which would make it possible to provide more in terms of counseling, job help and longer-term housing prospects.

Even that is a stopgap. In Berlin and across Germany, a housing shortage and skyrocketing rents are making it harder to find and hold onto stable living conditions. Germany has a substantial low-wage sector, and major studies have shown that income inequality is rising, a greater share of salary has to go to rent and these pressures are creeping into the middle class.

“If you don’t have the security of your own four walls, everything else is so hard,” Parlow said. “How do you recover from being an alcoholic if you’re sharing a room with an alcoholic?”

Even huge organizations like Caritas are having trouble securing affordable housing stock to pass onto people in need, he added. A mix of for- and non-profit companies, working with the city, offer short-term space for tens of thousands of people, which they can end up living in for years.

Increased migration has caught policymakers off guard over the years, as has the rush of property investors. That, coupled with insufficient housing regulations and a lack of enforcement, has all contributed to the homeless problem.

Goals, plans, strategies — but few details

Germany’s next government, led by the Social Democrats (SPD) and set to be sworn in next week, wants to dramatically expand new housing construction with a focus on affordability and to end homelessness by 2030. The governing coalition agreement mentions “putting forward a national action plan” but lacks specifics on how to go about it.

“The goal to overcome homelessness in this decade can succeed only with the cooperation of all federal levels,” Ingrid Herden, an SPD spokesperson, told DW in a statement. “That’s why there will be a working group between the federal government and the states, which will take on the preparatory work of presenting a national action plan.”

Germany has four-year legislative periods, which means the next government could take until 2025 to come up with such a plan. That would leave five years to implement it.

“It’s basically true that the new government still needs to figure out what the national action plan entails and how the goals of the coalition agreement will come to life,” Krister-Benjamin Schramm, a spokesperson for the Green Party, told DW in a statement.

A Greens proposal from 2019 to combat homelessness remains on the table, Schramm said.

COVID-19: Germany immunizes its homeles

The SPD and Greens are also in Berlin’s state government, which in its own coalition agreement has put forward slightly more concrete steps at the city-state level. They include using more of its own and EU funds to combat homelessness, keeping a closer legal eye on evictions and lowering the bar to get people into housing.

Both the Berlin and federal governments talk about “housing first,” a concept developed in the United States and experimented with in Germany that aims to get people into their own homes with no strings attached. That flips the script on other programs, which require homeless people to first meet certain requirements, such as dealing with addiction, before they receive a place to live.

Fixing a problem you can’t see

Social welfare organizations have welcomed the new political will to tackle homelessness but are waiting to see the proof in the pudding. The Federal Association for Homeless Help (BAG W), for example, is calling for stronger constitutional housing guarantees, more eviction protection, better rent control and easier ways for those without a fixed address to get on the books so they can receive adequate health care.

Taking action — and knowing what it might cost — can’t happen without a firmer sense of the extent of the problem. A law mandating regular and comprehensive data collection on homelessness came into effect only in 2020, and the first statistics are not expected until next year.

Until then, advocates and policymakers can only go on best estimates. Nationwide, there were 678,000 people without a home in 2018, according to BAG W. That includes 441,000 refugees and 19,000 children. Nearly 12% had jobs, and almost the same share were pensioners. Housing debt was the leading cause of losing a home.

The estimate has more than tripled since 2018, driven largely by refugees who — despite their protected social status and often employable skills — can more easily fall through the cracks and struggle to find solid work.

The true number at risk, Parlow said, could be much higher. The estimates don’t catch, for example, young people who can’t leave their parents’ homes, or those stuck in bad relationships because they have no place else to go. In Berlin alone, Parlow thinks there could be 200,000 people in precarious housing situations.

Waiting on the state’s plans, shelters like the one Parlow oversees in Berlin will remain on the front lines in the battle against homelessness — largely outgunned by the social and economic forces they face.

“You can solve this issue — if you really want it as a society or a government,” Parlow said.

Edited by Rina Goldenberg.

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

Europe

Heidelberg shooting: One dead in gun attack on German students

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A lone gunman has killed one person and seriously injured three others inside a lecture hall at Heidelberg University in the south-west of Germany, before shooting himself dead.

He was an 18-year-old German student.

German police said the shooter, who was armed with two guns, had used a “long gun”, and fired shots around the amphitheatre “wildly”.

The bloodshed triggered a large operation at the university’s campus in the Neuenheimer Feld area.

Police asked people to avoid the area so rescue workers and emergency services could move around freely.

German media reported that the gunman appeared to have no religious or political motive.

Police have searched his flat in the city of Mannheim, and found a WhatsApp message he had sent shortly beforehand, in which he spoke of punishing people.

Heidelberg is a university town with about 160,000 inhabitants.

The country has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe, and school shootings are rare. Anyone under 25 is required to pass a psychological evaluation before getting a gun licence.

Police initially said four victims had been wounded, with a later update confirming one had died in hospital.

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Ukraine crisis: Why Russia-US talks may prove crucial

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Senior diplomats from the US and Russia are meeting in the Swiss city of Geneva for the first of a series of crunch talks aimed at defusing tension over Ukraine.

The stakes for these talks on Monday are high. But both sides hold wildly different expectations. The US and other Western powers want to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine.

But Russia wants to talk about its maximalist demands for Nato to retreat from eastern Europe. It’s calling for Nato to pull its forces out of former Soviet countries, end any eastern expansion and rule out Ukraine joining the alliance.

Some US officials fear these demands are deliberately unrealistic, designed to be rejected and used as a pretext for military action. Other diplomats believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is aiming high to squeeze concessions out of a Western alliance that is willing to give ground to avoid war.

They say the Russian president is effectively demanding an end to Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture and the establishment of a Russian “sphere of influence”.

A high price

Given this, the US and Nato have dismissed most of Russia’s demands as “non-starters”. And the US has categorically denied reports it is considering possible troop reductions.

But American officials have said they are willing to look at curbs on military exercises and missile deployments.

One idea is a partial revival of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that the US abandoned in 2019 after Russia was accused of breaching its provisions. Other ideas are more measures to build confidence and greater transparency between Russia and the US.

The fear among some European allies is that even this would be too much of a reward for Russia, too high a price for trying to avoid conflict in Ukraine.

They fear the US might be willing to concede too much so it can focus more on China and domestic challenges, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy.

The US is aware of these fears and repeatedly insists it will not agree anything about Ukraine or European security without those countries involved.

Either way, President Putin has already made some gains, winning a platform this week to air his grievances and force the US and Europe to engage with his agenda of Nato reform.

Both sides are playing down expectations of an immediate deal. But that does not mean this week’s talks are not important.

A crucial staging post

At best, the talks could shed more light on Mr Putin’s intentions and reveal if he is serious about engaging in diplomacy.

At worst, a breakdown could lead to war, allowing Mr Putin to claim to his domestic audience that the West was not willing to talk and agree to his demands, and he was thus forced to act to ensure Russia’s security.

Western diplomats say they are ready for what they see as this false narrative: hence the Nato Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, insisting the alliance is ready for any Russian military action, and the firm warnings from the US and Europe that any invasion would be met with massive economic sanctions.

So, this week’s talks could prove a crucial diplomatic staging post, with the fate of Ukraine and Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture in the balance.

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Russia fines Google over illegal content breach

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bbc– A Moscow court has fined Google 7.2bn roubles ($98m; £73m) for repeated failure to delete content deemed illegal in Russia.

Details of the offending content were not specified in the announcement by the court’s press service.

This is the first time in Russia that a technology giant has been hit with a fine based on their annual turnover.

Google told AFP news agency that it would study the court ruling before deciding on further steps.

Russian authorities have increased pressure on tech firms this year, accusing them of not moderating their content properly, and interfering in the country’s internal affairs.

Hours after the Google verdict was announced, a 2bn rouble fine was handed to Meta, the parent company of Facebook, for similar content-related offences.

Earlier this week, Twitter was also handed a 3m rouble fine for similar charges.

This is not Google’s first brush with Russian authorities over content laws. In May, Russia’s media watchdog threatened to slow down the speed of Google if it failed to delete 26,000 instances of unlawful content, which it said related to drugs, violence and extremism.

President Vladimir Putin has pushed for development of a so-called sovereign internet, which would give the government more control over what its citizens can access.

Critics have accused Russia of using the campaign to clamp down on free speech and online dissent.

The country’s media regulator has blocked dozens of websites linked to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose campaign groups have been labelled “extremist”.

Google and Apple were also forced to remove an app dedicated to Navalny’s “Smart Voting” campaign, which gave users advice on tactical voting to unseat Kremlin-aligned politicians.

Websites like LinkedIn and Dailymotion have already been blocked for refusing to co-operate with authorities, and six major providers of Virtual Personal Networks (VPNs) – which help users to conceal their online activities – have been banned.

Earlier this year, Russia also introduced a new law requiring all new smartphones, computers and smart devices sold in the country to be pre-installed with Russian-made software and apps.

The government said the move would help Russian tech firms compete with foreign rivals.

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