Sven Zimmerman is helping to renovate a 300-year-old villa in a Dresden, Germany, suburb. Right now, the former baker's apprentice lives in a homeless shelter. The villa will not be his future home. But, he hopes, it will be a means to get him out of the shelter and into one of Dresden's low-income housing projects.
Mr. Zimmerman is part of the fledgling project "Bridge - Work Instead of Homelessness," run by the Institute for Training and Advice in Dresden.
The idea originated three years ago at a Paris-based homeless advocacy group. As far as the sponsors of Bridge know, theirs is the only such project in Germany. City and state authorities provide 70 percent of the financing and the European Union the remainder.
Renovating the villa is the first paid work Zimmerman has had since finishing his mandatory 10-month stint in the German Army in November. When he returned to Dresden, he found he had been evicted from the apartment he shared with a former girlfriend. Without his knowledge, he says, she stopped paying rent, although he had been sending his half of the rent money.
The girlfriend disappeared, and since the apartment was in his name, he was stuck with $1,700 in back rent. He ended up in the shelter. "I looked for work," he says, "but when people would see my address, they would say, 'We'll call,' but never did. They think I don't want to work, but I do."
Defying the stereotype of homeless people as lazy or substance abusers, Zimmerman and the 20 other Bridge participants worked at the villa twice a week without pay for the first four months. Rocco Richter, a young former construction worker, says, "The longer you are jobless, the harder it is to find a job."
Analysts say unemployment is the chief reason for homelessness in both western and eastern Germany, with jobless rates of 10.4 and 21.3 percent respectively.
Eastern Germany, seven years after reunification, is only now coming to grips with what is a relatively new problem there. Under Communism, East Germans had virtual guaranteed housing. Rents were very low, and even if someone did not, or could not, pay, he or she would not be evicted in a country wanting to show that its form of government took care of everyone.
Volker Busch-Geertsema of the Society for Innovative Social Research and Social Planning in Bremen, Germany, is co-author of a book on homelessness in the former East German state of Saxony-Anhalt. He says the idea of losing a home because you haven't paid rent is something "which [east Germans] have to get used to."
Economic factors, however, can still keep landlords from rushing to boot out nonpaying tenants. Because there is so much empty housing in east Germany (due to overbuilding after reunification), finding new tenants can be difficult. Instead, says Ekke-Ulf Ruhstrat, Busch-Geertsema's colleague and co-author, landlords hope the state will pick up the tab. If they evict someone, landlords take the risks involved in finding a new tenant.
Many of the new and renovated buildings were financed by government loans. To get the loans, Mr. Ruhstrat explains, the owner must agree to keep rents at a certain level for a certain time. So even with state help, rents are unaffordable for many welfare recipients. "And that's how you have this crazy situation where you have legions of apartment-hunters, but masses of empty apartments with high rents that won't go down," he says.
One result is a growing homeless population. In Saxony-Anhalt, Busch-Geertsema says, evictions jumped by 30 percent between 1995 and 1996. In neighboring Saxony, the number of registered homeless people rose from 2,500 in 1996 to 2,943 in 1997, according to the state's social minister.
Meanwhile, Zimmerman will be the last among those in the Bridge project to find an apartment. Having his own home will be "a huge, positive change," says Jrgen Brhl, a Bridge team member who moved into his first apartment Jan. 26 after being homeless for five years.
Bridge team members earn a monthly salary of about $1,000, and the institute also helps with job hunting and serves as a reference. Although the program will last only one year, all the team members agree their chances in the job market are much improved.
"When you have no work, you have no apartment," says Dieter Bliesner, the social worker who manages work at the villa. "And when you have no apartment, you have no work. We want to break that circle."