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Does Any of This Seem Familiar?

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

By Rae Richen

Wild park near Dreisam River, Freiburg, Germany, photo R. Richen
Wilderness path along Dreisam River with a hint of past, tentint in beaten down grass, R. Richen

Many Oregonians work hard to solve the homeless problem. We look at the solutions of others and find that we’re not alone. By studying what is happening in the countries we visit, we see what has worked, and what isn’t working. Just maybe, we can avoid big mistakes.

Or we can find ideas to adopt.

Last month, we looked at the Tiny House possibilities. And that is part of the solution we found in Germany on our recent visit. But in Germany, they’re employing other big pieces to the puzzle. Germany hasn’t solved homelessness, but here is what they are doing.

Homeless In Germany

“Where are the tent-dwelling homeless?” We asked ourselves as we noticed the huge difference in the towns we visited in Switzerland and Germany. Our interest in this subject is the result of our work with the thirteen congregations of the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty in Portland, Oregon.

Portland, Oregon’s lack of low income housing is all too abundantly clear. The alliance has been working with several non-profit partners and with the city to advocate for solutions to this lack of housing and the need to address renters’ rights in a reasonable way.

The Interfaith Alliance has also been working to create deeper understanding of the reasons so many people live in poverty, and has been helping people remain in homes, and become stable in homes despite inadequate pay and rising costs.

In our sixteen days of travel through Switzerland and Germany, there was only one place where we thought there may have been tents in the recent past, and that was in Freiburg near its Dreisam River. There, we saw that the wilderness pathway near the river on the eastern shore had been cut off with a new fence. We thought the fence, hastily erected, may have been an attempt to discourage tenting or some kind of trespass. The west side of the river still contained an open path between the river and the highway. Still, even in this area we saw no beaten down grass or signs of garbage that might have indicated an encampment. It was the only place where we saw a hint of that possibility.

And as we explored that path, we remembered the tents along the Interstate 5 corridor and along the Springwater Corridor.

During our Freiburgian sojourn, somewhat puzzled about the apparent absence of homeless tenting, I began searching for local solutions to homelessness in each town we visited.

True, we were in each town for only a few days, and our radius of search was narrowed by our ability to walk or use the bus system. It is possible that there were whole tent villages on the outskirts of the larger towns such as Freiburg, but in the smaller towns, we were able to visit most of the area of the village and still saw no tents.

As our train crossed a bridge going into Frankfurt, I thought I saw a tiny house village with gardens. But that made little sense because the riverside location is high value property. Then, I remembered that in Estonia and other northern European towns we had visited, our hosts often owned a small acreage for vegetable and fruit growing. Each such lot often had a tool shed and green house.

Sure enough, asking around, that is what the tiny houses turned out to be. People with means had room to grow their own food. No such thing as tiny-house villages, yet.

And then I saw an article in INSP, the International Network of Street Papers. The INSP wrote about Sven Lüdecke who built portable tiny sleeping pods for those who had been sleeping on the streets. They were shelter on wheels, lockable storage, movable when the local powers decided to rid the area of the homeless.

“Just a few months ago, nobody, not even Sven Lüdecke himself, would have thought that this crazy idea would even get off the ground.

Hole in  an oak tree makes a safe home for a small animal, R. Richen
All animals want to feel safe from attack as they raise young or sleep., Richen

However, there was a very similar story from New York, where the interior architect Gregory Kloehn made waves with his Homeless Houses made of bulky refuse, initially only meant as art installations.”

Lüdecke learned that Kloehn had created how-to tutorials on the internet for anyone who wanted to build these houses. “I remember thinking: ‘I want to do that too.’ And so I got myself a few pallets and the necessary tools,” says Lüdecke.

A search of newspapers and opinion pages didn’t turn up mention of a homeless problem, or a camping homeless problem until an article found by a friend toward the very end of the trip. Friends who spoke German fluently also searched in the papers they picked up.

The sleeping pod builder in Germany is creating safety for individuals. But in Portland, Eugene, and Cottage Grove, our several tiny houses are built as communities of people who support each other and create community expectations for caring and living within stability.

Early in the trip to Germany, an internet search in Freiburg indicated that there were three major apartment complexes especially designed for people who may have otherwise been without enough money to rent an apartment. We walked past two of those (the third was in another part of the city. They were clean, good looking buildings with a clear way for only residents to code themselves into the building.

In Erfurt, a once concrete gray public housing spruced up with color and awnings., Richen
In Erfurt, a once concrete gray public housing spruced up with color and awnings.,Richen

The article about Freiburg that clued us into what these two buildings were, also indicated that Germany supported those with too small an income so that they could rent an apartment. The government had come to the conclusion, based on research, that they could spend less on each person by giving them secure shelter than by allowing their health and mental health to deteriorate because they had no shelter. It will be interesting to follow this over time.

However, while we were in Frankfurt, I read the following in Deutsche Welle or DW, an English language newspaper: “In Frankfurt, the wealthy epicenter of Germany’s finance sector, homeless people will now have to pay fines for sleeping on downtown streets.”

Recently, there had been a backlash against this suggested fine that would be

imposed by the city council – marches against the ordinance at council locations and in the streets of the city. We were not there long enough to know the outcome, but the criminalization of sleeping was very familiar to all of us from Oregon.

I believe this ‘solution’ to homelessness has been put forward in many cities. It is the wish to solve a problem by sweeping it under the rug, by blaming the homeless instead of recognizing our lack of policies that make affordable and low-income housing even possible.

In my previous story about Switzerland, I referred to the evidence that many people who worked in the resort town of Adelboden did not live within the town, but traveled each day by bus down to the towns in the lower valley. This long commute from the affordable to the rich community is true in many parts of the United States. When I visited the area of Ojai California, I learned that the people who worked in the Ojai resort could not afford any home closer than an hour and a half bus ride away – a three-hour part of their work day not covered by their low pay.

Public housing in Leipzig outskirts. A graffiti magnet.  some graffiti is art. Some just stakes a claim. Richen
Public housing in Leipzig outskirts. A graffiti magnet. some graffiti is art. Some just stakes a claim., Richen

The German government intends to provide apartments for low income residents. However, it appears from the articles I read in DW or Deutsche Welle (English language news about Germany), that there are not enough government apartments set aside for the low-income families or individuals within the cities where they work. One article by Elizabeth Schumacher , December 18, 2017, reported that the financial center of Germany, Frankfurt, had proposed to fine those found living on the street. DW also observed that the government of large German cities, such as Berlin had been selling public property that might have been used for housing, while not planning for the influx of moderate to low income workers.

Does any of this sound familiar? Are these ‘solutions’ to homelessness that we have tried in many of our cities?

Who are the homeless in Germany? Some Germans may like to believe most of the homeless are the refugees that have recently come, but that is only a part of the populations. According to Andrea Bistrich, author of an article in the online newspaper, SHARE, “It is easier for families to get temporary accommodation than for single people. This means 35,000 single people face life on the streets.”

An independent organization that offers social services is ironically (or perhaps purposefully) called BAG (BundesArbeitGemeinshaftWohnungsloseHilfe or Organization to Help the Homeless). BAG has demanded official government statistics of homelessness within Germany, but to no avail. It is their hope that real statistics would help determine the need for housing. Bistrich writes that “Estimates indicate that there are approximately 591,000 homeless people in Germany; if you add the homeless immigrants the total adds up to approximately 860,000 people. By way of comparison, that [total number] is the size of Cologne, Germany’s fourth largest city.”

Tromp l'oeil painting of two buildings with tight rope walker between them, audience below.Art on public housing. No graffiti has appeared on this wall. It seems too fun to mess up. Richen
Art on public housing. No graffiti has appeared on this wall. It seems too fun to mess up., Richen

According to SHARE, about almost third of the homeless are women, and almost third are children and 39 percent are men. Recent news in Oregon, indicates that we also have a growing population of children in poverty and in homeless situations.

Building the Wrong Type of Housing

According to the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, only 32 percent of needed new apartments were built in Germany’s major cities between 2011 and 2015, particularly in Berlin. The institute estimates that Germany needs 385,000 new apartments every for the next three years. Most surprising was that there was such a shortage of small apartments.

Institute author Michael Voigtländer, “Investors do want to build, but there’s a lack of building land, and …then of course they build what gets them the biggest margins and that’s the biggest and most expensive apartments.”

According to the deputy director of Berlin’s tenants’ association, Wibke Werner, “Another problem is that most new apartments are for owning, not renting. Given that more than half of Berliners have a relatively low income, the demand is nowhere near covered for now.”

Werner concluded that “Some kind of subsidy that is more attractive than what (Developers) can get on the market is needed. This could be tied to regulations on how many two or three-room apartments should be included in any new buildings.

Once warehouses, now affordable housing in Leipzig over Eister Canal[ Richen
Once warehouses, now affordable housing in Leipzig over Eister Canal. Richen

All of these observations sound very familiar to those of us working to eliminate homelessness in Portland, Oregon, and, I’m certain in all of Oregon. Our recent news shows that while we sought information about housing solutions in Germany, the Portland Housing Bureau planned to buy a nearly-finished apartment complex in East Portland to operate as public housing for low-income renters. The city would pay $14.3 million for the 51-unit building at 10506 E. Burnside St. from the $258 million affordable housing bond voters approved in 2015.

The Portland City Council said that leasing would begin in July. The Portland Housing Bureau plans to buy a nearly-finished apartment complex in East Portland to operate as public housing for low-income renters.

from, rendering of proposed apartment building for low income families.
from, rendering of proposed apartment building for low income families.

For more information about the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty, (see ).

For more information about Sven Lüdecke in Cologne and his new project in Berlin, go to

For 2016 statistics on homelessness in Germany:

Start following the Portland Housing Bureau work for the homeless at:

And the Metro proposed housing bond:

See you next time with a review of a good book, and then later, some fun we found underfoot.

Rae Richen


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