“Homelessness? That did not exist in the GDR!” That’s a common assumption. That there were significantly fewer homeless people than in West Germany is undisputed however. In the GDR — the former East Germany — the state provided for cheap rent, work and shared flats, but they also oppressed everyone who was considered to be “antisocial”. “Those that were homeless were simply locked away,” remembers Rotraud Kießling. In the GDR, she was active in the church’s outreach work. Today, she works in the housing emergency aid unit at the Diakonie Dresden, a German charity.
The criminalization of homelessness in the GDR had greatly increased since 1961, comments Christoph Lorke. He is a historian and focuses on poverty in the GDR. During that time, the construction of the Berlin Wall had begun, and the GDR leadership was increasingly guided by the Soviet “parasite paragraphs,” he adds. Section 249 of the GDR’s Criminal Code provided the basis for enforcing the law: The so-called antisocial clause. Activities such as begging, being considered “work-shy,” prostitution or the impairment of “public order and security through an antisocial way of life” were all punished with reeducational classes, prison or residence restrictions. “Homelessness and associated behavior simply didn’t form part of the socialist ideal,” explains Lorke.
To get homeless people off the streets, the state provided them with council housing – if necessary under duress. The buildings were mostly run-down, older buildings with external toilets, for example in Prenzlauer Berg. That’s exactly the areas where rents are nowadays sky-high.
Teenagers who didn’t follow the norm, i.e. because they didn’t want to work, were also put in so-called youth workshops. Most factories even had special departments for so-called slow workers. All of these initiatives led to the result that homelessness did not exist, in particular not during the latter days of the GDR, says Lorke.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the situation changed quickly. Many East Germans had to move out of their apartments, which had been provided by their employers.
Others were overwhelmed by bureaucratic hurdles and high rents. Suddenly, between 1991 and 1992, about 200,000 people did not live in permanent accommodation, reports Lorke.
What’s worse, there was no support available from the government. Social worker Kießling, who helped establish initial support frameworks at that time, agrees: “Former ‘criminals’ were suddenly eligible, so finally we could help them.” Many people also left everything behind and emigrated to West Germany. Some of them still ended up being homeless, though exact numbers are not known. In an article published in November 1991 by Die Zeit, a German daily, the then chairwoman of the Federal Committee on Assisting the Homeless suggested that “about 20 to 30 percent of the spaces in West German shelters are taken by ‘Ossis’ [an informal term for someone from East Germany].”
A few years later, in 1993, street paper Hinz&Kunzt was founded. One of the reasons was that homeless people became increasingly visible on Hamburg’s streets. Hinz&Kunzt social worker Stephan Karrenbauer remembers: “At that time, a large proportion of homeless people were from the east. Many of them wanted to build a new life, but failed.”
Translated from German by Eva Schueckel; Courtesy of Hinz&Kunzt / INSP
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