A visit to the “donation fence”

Jutta Henke

You can visit a Gabenzaun – literally a “donation fence” – to see solidarity, packed and hanging in bags. From Berlin and Hamburg to Münster and from Elmsbüttel to Velbert and Iserlohn – plastic bags, transparent or opaque, tied to neatly labeled wrought iron fences or wobbly chain-link fences sporting cardboard signs that have obviously gotten wet.

Unhoused people have no income in the pandemic. If no one is strolling around the city, there’s no point in begging. What about collecting bottles for deposits? No dice – no one is going to soccer games or grabbing an organic soda to go meet up with friends. All that means a loss of earnings for the homeless. And the soup kitchens are closed.

The pandemic has sharpened our perceptions: the poverty and privation of those whom no one provides for are immediately obvious. You can’t stay home if you don’t have a home to stay in. The spring of 2020 brought an outpouring of concern for unhoused people like never before.

This would all be fine if matters didn’t stop there. But while our European neighbors in England launched the “Everyone in” campaign, using government funds to get tens of thousands of homeless people off the streets in just a short time and place them in hotel rooms where they could stay safe with a roof over their heads, a different kind of boom arose in Germany: charity. Meals are now delivered to the homeless where they are staying. Millions in donations have poured in to support food bank supply chains. Sadly, this doesn’t do much to fight the coronavirus – or homelessness.

The pandemic has blinded us, with the misery of the homeless people we see in front of us distorting our view. We cannot see that living on the streets is not normal. That most people who are experiencing homelessness did in fact have their own home once, perhaps not even all that long ago, and that at some point, they had to leave that home behind, with no hope of salvaging anything. That only those who have a home can stay home.

By expanding the sources of help for people from the street, we lose sight of the real solution to the problem. After all, homelessness is not an intractable problem, and Germany is unusual among social states in the breadth and effectiveness of the range of tools available to fight it. A city could simply decide no longer to put up with homelessness. No COVID? – Exactly, and no homelessness, either.

Photo: Andre Zelck

Jutta Henke is the managing director of Gesellschaft für innovative Sozialforschung und Sozialplanung e.V. (GISS), Bremen. She does research on topics including homelessness and participation, evaluates social services, and advises municipalities and other bodies on refining specific concepts geared toward providing social aid.