A street paper in northern Germany is about to set up a social business that will create permanent and affordable housing for its homeless vendors.
Kiel-based paper Hempels will purchase mobile homes and small apartments across the city and rent them out to its vendors and service users, who would otherwise struggle on the open housing market.
The ambitious Hempels hilft wohnen (‘Hempels helps to live in apartments’) project comes at a critical time in Germany as rising rents, coupled with a shortage of affordable housing, threatens to push more people into homelessness and poverty.
Hempels’ founder Jo Tein has witnessed a staggering rise in the numbers of homeless people staying in shelters in Kiel over the past four years.
He told INSP he was determined to do more to help vendors struggling to afford adequate housing based on their income and backgrounds.
“Everyone we talked to would like to live in their own apartments but they say it’s very difficult to meet the expectations required of them. So we think some kind of support is necessary,” said Jo.
Hempels’ housing project is scheduled for an official launch this summer. It will be financed using a combination of its own funds, grants from external organisations and public donations.
Initially Hempels plans to secure mobile homes, which will be pitched on church property. These will predominantly be funded through a charitable trust set up by Hempels and a local organisation, Diakonische Werk Schleswig-Holstein, that helps homeless and vulnerable people transition off the streets and into secure accommodation.
Jo said enough funds are already in place to purchase the first mobile home, which will cost €45-50,000. They are negotiating with various churches interested in hosting vendors on their grounds.
Thanks to additional financial support from state-run organisation Stiftung Schleswig-Holsteiner, Hempels hopes to make offers on up to four small apartments in suitable areas of the city later this year.
The scheme is already generating interest among Hempels vendors. Vendor Andreas, 45, currently lives in the city’s Bodelschwingh-Haus shelter in Kiel. He supports the project because “the streets and public shelters cannot be permanent solutions.”
“This is now my third stay in the Bodelschwingh-Haus. I spent many years in friends’ apartments and finding shelter overnight in repurposed shipping containers,” he added.
“Finding my own place or even an apartment to share has been very hard for me. Being able to live in Hempels [accommodation] would be great, in part because they would offer practical and emotional support when I start living on my own again.”
As a university city, Kiel is home to about 30,000 students. Jo said this also puts a lot of pressure on the affordable housing market
“It’s very difficult for our vendors to find apartments on the free market. If you’re on social security, which most vendors are, there is only a limited number of apartments to rent that are affordable on welfare benefits,” added Jo.
“Many landlords won’t accept people who live on social security, especially if they have other problems like alcohol and drug addictions, which affect many of our vendors. In most cases landlords would prefer students.”
Escalating rent prices is a growing problem in many German cities. A rent cap introduced in Berlin last year to put the brakes on spiralling rent charges is planned to be rolled out across the country.
Hempels is committed to keeping rents as low as possible for vendors who rely on state benefits and their earnings from selling the street paper. Jo says rents would be charged at less than €350 per month for a one-person, 25m2 flat. All profits will be reinvested into the project.
In addition to offering cheap leases, the street paper will provide additional support for vendors at the start of their tenancy. This includes regular visits from a social worker to ensure the property is being well maintained and that rental payments are made on time, as well as help to organise their bills and paperwork.
The project will operate similarly to the Housing First model, which has seen success in the U.S. and across Europe in housing and supporting people who are chronically homeless. It works on the principle that housing is a basic human right and provides permanent accommodation for people straight from the street, before addressing any additional need for support services in mental and physical health, substance abuse, and employment.
While sceptics may question tenants’ ability to make rent payments on time, Jo and his team harbour no such concerns.
“We can trust our street paper vendors,” he said. “We know most of these people. If they say I want my own apartment and I meet the expectation we should try it. One of the core ideas of street papers is to trust in the people you work with and what they define as their own needs.”
The main difficultly ahead, he said, is determining which of Hempels’ 200-strong team of vendors will top the list for its affordable housing scheme.
“That might be the main problem but we will rely on people who work with vendors and know them very well, and will follow their recommendations,” said Jo.
“With the increasing number of homeless, we know Hempels hilft wohnen will not be able to help everyone. But the project is an important beacon, making clear that something must be done. Every homeless person is important and deserves a chance.”