Rising from the at-risk: Bonn’s blueprint to unshackle homelessness by 2030

Bonn has a plan – to eradicate homelessness by 2030. Bonner Offensive zur Überwindung der Wohnungslosigkeit bis 2030(‘Bonn’s Campaign to overcome Homelessness by 2023’) aims to bond with housing owners to prevent evictions, meet the changing needs of people already experiencing homelessness, including improving current services, and generate an appropriate support structure to avoid excluding those groups from participation in society. 

In practice, that means liaising with house owners and acting as a mediator when tenants can no longer pay rent. On the other hand, Bonn plans to improve the facilities and services for homeless people who are partly sleeping rough in the city. 

It all starts with housing for all

According to figures from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the number of homeless people in Bonn has increased almost tenfold since 2011. This could keep escalating as the population is expected to increase by 8.8% by 2050. Still, the housing market will not be able to cover the demand despite a wide range of housing promotion instruments. 

Everyone can end up experiencing homelessness if solutions are not provided. Data also shows that the chance of finding an apartment decreases while the risk of losing a home, on the other hand, increases. Prevention is key. Therefore, Bonn works to identify risk factors early and intervene before the situation worsens. 

Anja Ramos, Head of Social Affairs Office and Housing at Bonn City Council

“In Bonn, as in other large cities, there is not enough affordable housing,” explains Anja Ramos, Head of Social Affairs Office and Housing at Bonn City Council. Indeed, 50% of private households in the city spend more than one third of their monthly income to pay their rent, 31% use more almost half of their monthly payment, and 14% spend more than half of their income. 

“In our opinion, looking exclusively at those already considered homeless does not go far enough,” states Munirae Gharevi, project manager of the Bonner Offensive project.  “It is important to remember that low-income households often have to spend a larger proportion of their income to pay rent,” says Ramos, indicating that this makes them a group at risk of housing exclusion. 

A deal with owners

Bonn counts on a stock of local subsidised apartments, meaning the council manages houses where the rent is affordable for low-income households and those residents on social benefits. The rent barely increases to invest in repairs.   

However, this market does not reach 10,000 units, corresponding to less than 6% of the total housing market. At the end of 2022, only 6,450 subsidised apartments were available. Those houses, Ramos says, “show hardly any fluctuation in the tenants and are therefore only rarely available for those entitled to housing with a permit for subsidised housing.” 

Given the problematic situation, the municipality works on preventing homelessness by trying to avoid evictions. “The office of the ‘Bonn’s Campaign to Overcome Homelessness’ has contacted two of the largest commercial landlords in Bonn and offered to help and accompany their tenants with questions and problems,”  explains Ramos. This office also helps tenants with anything acting as an obstacle in paying their rent, such as debts, drug abuse, psychological issues or physical problems. 

To work with both parties, landlords and tenants, it’s essential to “find out about their interests,” says Gharevi. Tenants want to stay in the house, whereas landlords or landladies seek a smooth process. The Bonn Campaign provides free support and accessible solutions to tenants in need. “I think it’s a good offer. Landlords wanted to cooperate with us,” declares Gharevi. 

Additionally, to increase the number of apartments available for people at risk of becoming homeless, the council intervenes in the renting process. “Normally, the landlords decide themselves with whom they are contracting,” explains Gharevi. “We invite the landlords to rent the apartments to trustworthy charities that act as tenants and then sublet the apartments to our clients.” The non-profits organisations overtake responsibility for rent and potential damages. 

Being young and homeless

Due to the housing situation in Bonn, one of the target groups that the city can focus on to stop homelessness is youth. An ongoing local project targets those between 18 and 26 years old whose living conditions deal with factors that could lead to house loss. They may be youngsters in difficult situations who had to leave their houses or have been kicked out by their families. Prevention is vital since “once homelessness has occurred in the target group, it can hardly be remedied,” explains Gharevi. 

Young people may not regularly get involved in the employment, education and social systems, so they are difficult to reach with youth welfare services. Youngsters at risk of becoming homeless can hardly fall back on family support, so they need a network of social workers. 

Thanks to this programme, young people affected by psychological problems, drug abuse and dropping out of the educational system can receive support at an early stage. The municipality admits that mental health issues are rising, and psychological support is often insufficient. 

Therefore, workers visit the young adults in their environment and speak to them. Following this approach, social workers build trust and support with the young adults, who aim for an independent life and participate in society. Also, a few apartments are available until they can get a house with a contract. 

A holistic approach for those experiencing homeless

While working on prevention, assistance to those already sleeping rough should also be increased in the city. However, the work of the municipality to provide housing for the homeless is becoming increasingly difficult. Ramos explains that it fails to build enough apartments. Out of 558 places in collective accommodation that the council has in total, 537 are currently occupied. “The municipal options are not sufficient to compensate for the consequences of the exhausted housing market,” Ramos adds, “and to offer long-term prospects for decent housing and privacy and to stabilise physically and psychologically people who have been homeless for years.” 

The programme’s team. Photo by Bonn City

In Bonn, one would like, to “use all the tools at our disposal to help improve the situation and win over external players to develop new solutions together with the public, with the community, and so on,” adds Gharevi.  

The social administration, together with the providers of homeless assistance, would like to enable decent living, improve the quality of accommodation for homeless people in Bonn and better meet their needs using all social control systems. In doing so, those offer and help structures should also be developed that were previously hardly accessible for this group of people, such as benefits from the long-term care insurance fund and sick help or integration assistance. 

But what does it mean to be homeless?

In 2020, 1,960,000 people were registered as homeless in Germany. However, this group is hard to track and, thus, unable to be reported. The numbers, therefore, are probably higher.  

This applies to the standard definition of homelessness. Ramos explains that sleeping in family and friends’ houses for long due to the inability to pay rent or own a home should also be considered. “They may be covertly homeless because they are not necessarily recognised publicly,” she says. 

Indeed, while the number of identified homeless people is increasing, the number of rough sleepers is relatively constant, around 100 in the city. Gharevi identifies impoverishment as one of the main risks due to physical and mental illness and disability, old age, dementia and the need for care, which are all on the rise. 

Homeless people may be seen as a homogenous group, “which is simplistic,” explains Ramos, since homelessness involves “very different living conditions.” And “while it is true that anyone can become homeless, not all of us are equally likely to be. Multiple forms of discrimination can lead to homelessness more quickly,” she explains. 

Integration into society and the labour market

However, “anyone who is homeless experiences forms of exclusion and discrimination from our society,” she adds. To name a few, difficult access to social benefits and medical care, no access to work, a lack of participation and social life, or even psychological and physical violence. Discrimination and exclusion often take place even before the home is lost. 

Helena Marx, a social worker of the office ‘Bonn’s Campaign to Eradicate Homelessness’, claims that “homelessness and having no job often go hand in hand. Many cannot work because other issues like physical or psychological illness are big problems in their life that they must solve before they can start to work.” With this  office, they want to focus on the job market and maybe integrate people there as their participation in society is also essential to overcoming homelessness. 

“We also see potential in the shortage of skilled workers because some employers may offer a flat along with the job.”  

The municipality leads some projects in which people experiencing homelessness can be part of a group that cleans public spaces. Ramos adds that they feel good by doing something and being positively recognised in society. Gharevi explains that these projects are intended to give them a daily purpose rather than integrating them into the job market. Others encourage them to do gardening, bike mechanics, painting or moving services. 

These daily activities aim to integrate them into society from an occupational point of view. From housing to employment, but also deepening into the causes of the loss of their homes and investing in youth, it becomes evident that Bonn is committed to eradicating homelessness by 2030. 

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer