In the shadow of poverty

Homelessness in Austria: Vienna in the spotlight

Anyone can be hit by homelessness, be it young people or academics. Sandra Knopp and Udo Seelhofer explored the question of why more and more people have housing difficulties and found some surprising answers.

Just as Barbara’s cancer treatment was coming to an end, her landlord decided not to extend the lease on her flat but put it on sale. So all of a sudden Barbara ended up on the street. She could not afford to pay a deposit on a new place. “I used to work as a freelancer before, but my financial resources had been exhausted on the expensive treatment.” But Barbara would not be discouraged. Looking for a new place was top of her list. Her turning point came when she heard of the “Shades Tours” on the radio. These city tours differ considerably from common sightseeing tours: homeless people present their view of their home city from a socio-political perspective. The guides not only talk about the challenges homeless people face but also about approaches to solving homeless people’s problems and facilities catering to them. “I immediately picked up the phone and called Perrine Schober, the founder of Shades Tours,” Barbara recalls. They clicked immediately, and Barbara started training to become a guide.

© Michael Mazohl

Perrine Schober founded “Shades Tours” in 2015. Homeless guides present their view of Vienna and give an insight into their daily lives. The aim of the tours, which last a few hours each: people should learn not to feel awkward when they encounter a homeless person and be ready to act if necessary. Perrine Schober drew her inspiration for these tours from Amsterdam. Photo: © Michael Mazohl.

Vienna’s streetscape has changed massively over the past few years, says Perrine Schober: “People pass by the poor and homeless every day and have no idea how to react.” Among other things, it was Amsterdam that gave Schober the inspiration to create Shades Tours. The Dutch city offers thematic tours that, for example, lead visitors through the red-light district. “It got me thinking about how I could do something like this in Vienna.”

“Many book the tours to do some good and are surprised at how much they get out of it.”

— Perrine Schober, Shades Tours

The aim is to educate people in such a way that they no longer feel awkward when they see a homeless person and are ready to act if necessary. “It’s a social education project for civil society.” Many book the tours to do some good and are very surprised at how much they get out of it, says Schober.

Urgently needed housing

The Austrian housing market has been tight for years with the situation becoming ever more acute. On 1 April 2017, Austria raised its rental housing reference rate by 3.5 percent, affecting approximately 300,000 households. On average, this means that each individual has to pay an extra 150 euros or so a year. Not everyone is able to afford this. Klaus Schwertner, secretary general of the Vienna chapter of charity Caritas, calls on lessors, the building industry and politics: “We are looking for small, self-contained housing units of at least 25 square metres complete with bathroom and cooking facilities at affordable prices, on an unlimited lease if possible.” Caritas rents such housing units for its clients and initially even assumes a contingent liability.

Official statistics point to a constant increase in the number of young people among the homeless. About a third are under 30. The JUCA in Vienna’s 16th district, a transitional housing project run by Caritas for young adults aged 18 to 30, focuses on this target group. Philipp has been living here for six months. Before that, he used to sleep outdoors, on the Danube island or at the Museumsquartier complex. Things had become difficult at home: “I often quarrelled with my parents. The situation eventually escalated, and they kicked me out.”

The 21-year-old feels at ease at the JUCA. “My housemates and supervisors are easy going. There are no disputes, and nobody gets on my nerves. I really like that,” he says, smiling. A friend had told him about the JUCA: “I came here, and they immediately gave me a room.”

Andrea Fichtinger, who is in charge of JUCA, points out that JUCA’s primary aim is to provide basic services and emergency housing: “We have 67 single rooms and one emergency shelter with 16 beds.” Many young people lack family support and stable social relations. Some have addiction problems, others haven’t completed their school education. Adolescents can stay at JUCA for up to two years, occasionally longer. Andrea Fichtinger stresses that they may return to the JUCA whenever they need help: “Many of them are not used to following rules and move out ahead of time. Others don’t manage to pay rent on time. These are young people who have never lived on their own and now have to organise their own income, which they find hard to do.” She asks potential lessors to be understanding: “Our target group cannot prove they have already lived in their own homes for years. For them it’s often the first attempt.”

In 2016 around 6,000 people with housing difficulties turned to Caritas for help. Klaus Schwertner says that rising rents are a problem throughout Austria. “The cost of housing has risen by more than 18 percent since 2008. In households at risk of poverty it was up 31 percent.”

“All these facts have been known for quite some time, but the government has underestimated or ignored the problems,” criticises Schwertner. Consequently, many people can no longer afford a place to live despite having a job. Schwertner quotes from housing advertisements: a 33-square-metre flat in Vienna’s Favoriten district costs 678 euro in rent; in the city of Salzburg you pay 745 euros for a 46-square-metre flat. On top of this, the deposit is more than 2,000 euros. And then there are the utility costs. “None of the JUCA residents can afford this,” says Schwertner.

A place with prospects for ex-convicts

“Loser’s road?” asks the sign at the entrance of “’s Häferl” near Vienna’s underground U4 station Margaretengürtel. Norbert Karvanek, head of “’s Häferl”, would answer with a definite no. Every day the place serves 220 guests for free, says Karvanek. His motto: “I’m not a social worker, I’m hosting the poor.” “’s Häferl” was founded almost 30 years ago by the Protestant prisoners’ pastor Gerlinde Horn.

One of the biggest problems that inmates face after serving several years in prison is that they have not only lost their jobs and their homes but also their social environment. “Only their parents remain, and they often die,” says Karvanek. Gerlinde Horn made it her task to look after these people – first in her own flat and then at the day-care centre “’s Häferl”. “We’re something like the ‘Protestant Gruft’ [shelter for the homeless in Vienna]. Only volunteers work here; I’m the only one employed on a twelve-hour basis.”

Karvanek knows that problems come in packs: “Homeless people get arrested more easily, ex-convicts become homeless more easily.” They need people to look after them, although things have improved in this respect, he says. Norbert Karvanek has been an integral part of the “Häferl” crew for 15 years. He got to know the facility by chance: “I met this crazy artist who I used to play backgammon with. One time we said: ‘Let’s meet at the Häferl, the coffee is cheaper there.’” His friend did not show up, but he met the founder, Gerlinde Horn. They talked for a while and Karvanek, who had served seven years in prison, made up his mind: “I said to myself: ‘Norbert, you have been talking idly to your pals for twenty years. Now it’s time to do something!’”

When Gerlinde Horn retired in 2002, Norbert Karvanek took over, extending the services on offer. “Principally we are a café. But people also ask for clothes and shoes.” Footwear is always an issue for the homeless. “Homeless people constantly need shoes. If you don’t have a place to stay, you keep your shoes on all night or you put them into your sleeping bag. So they wear out more easily.” Once a month “’s Häferl” and its provider, Diakonie Wien, offer social counselling. “That’s where we first approach people.”

Different approaches

Martin Schenk, social expert at Diakonie Wien, says these talks often centre on housing-related problems such as rent arrears, health issues or the loss of employment or minimum benefits. People deal with housing problems differently, says Schenk. Women try to find accommodation somewhere, and even tolerate difficult relationships to make sure they don’t lose their living space.

© Michael Mazohl

To get a roof over their head, homeless people also seek refuge in dilapidated buildings. Demand for shelters rises during winter: 1,100 places were available to people in urgent need of a place to sleep during the coldest weeks of January 2017. Average occupancy in winter 2016/2017 was 92 percent. The city of Vienna also provided 160 additional places in winter day shelters. Photo: © Michael Mazohl.

Plenty of couples would like to get divorced but stay together because they cannot afford a place on their own. The number of illegal substandard flats is increasing. “There is a lot of illegal employment due to labour migration from Romania and Bulgaria. People live ‘invisibly’ in such places. Then we have low-income people from the Middle East who have difficulties on the housing market. They are prone to being exploited.” The supply of affordable housing must increase, says Schenk. The public sector must make affordable building land available. Schenk emphasises the importance of eviction prevention programmes: “We have seen some positive developments in Vienna. These are needed throughout Austria.”

For years, the established social work sector assumed that people going through a life crisis need to relearn how to live by themselves step by step. Transitional housing services were set up for this purpose. “The ‘Housing First’ principle, on the other hand, focuses on people’s autonomy,” says Markus Reiter, managing director of the social organisation Neunerhaus. Independent living is a priority. The support that comes with it depends on the individual needs of the people concerned. “If someone is going through a life crisis or needs help, they can best cope with this when they live in their own home. There is no need for intermediary steps such as assisted living; people can live an independent life from the very beginning,” says Reiter. When clients are no longer in need of support, they can stay in their homes – which is not the case in other facilities – and do not have to move again. “The important thing is to clearly separate support from housing. That’s the crucial point.” Currently, Neunerhaus has placed people in need in around 110 housing units. Of these, 97 percent have a valid tenancy; most of them no longer need support, says Reiter: “The success rate is impressive.”

Tightening rules

Nevertheless, it is increasingly difficult to provide affordable housing, says Reiter. “We regularly talk to developers, cooperatives and Wiener Wohnen [communal property management of the municipality of the city of Vienna]. They all point out that the gap between earned income, social support services such as minimum benefits and housing costs is getting wider.” Reiter also criticises the public sector: “Tax-funded, state-subsidised housing programmes provide little help for impoverished and homeless people to find affordable housing.” Over the past few years Austria has tightened the rules on benefit access. People who apply for community housing must have been continuously registered in Vienna for at least two years. “For homeless people this is almost a deal-breaker. Homelessness often causes gaps in registration records.” Reiter does not understand this change. “From one year to the next Wiener Wohnen lowered the number of housing units it allocated to us by 140. Up to that point unemployment check receipts, for example, were sufficient prove that people have been resident in Vienna.”

“Homelessness must be considered a reason of urgency when allocating housing.”

— Markus Reiter, Neunerhaus

Reiter demands that homelessness be considered a reason of urgency when allocating housing. He also insists that the minimum period of fixed-term tenancy agreements be increased from three to ten years: “This would help families, because time limits lead to frequent changes of residence and, consequently, increasing rents.”

There is coffee, tea, bread, jam and butter at the counter. “We help people get out of their situations by providing them with night shelters and transitional housing,” says Kobermann. Josi assists people in claiming minimum benefits and unemployment services. “To obtain documents is of central importance. These often get lost on the street or are stolen.”

As useful and valuable facilities such as Josi may be – Barbara rarely went there. “I did not want to hear the same dreadful stories over and over again. They just pull you down.” She had other plans that day: “I have a Kulturpass [card that provides socially disadvantaged people with free admission to numerous cultural institutions] and went to the museum. So I could talk myself into believing I had done something meaningful,” she says with a laugh. Barbara’s search for a new place had a happy ending: she found a new flat a few weeks ago. Her next goal is to work as a tourist guide. She has already started training.

Original in German. First published on 16 May 2017 on
Translation from German to English by Barbara Maya.

This text is protected by copyright: © Sandra Knopp and Udo Seelhofer. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Once a train station, now a place to sleep: homeless people spend the night at the former Nordbahnhof railway station. There are no official figures on how many people are homeless in Vienna. The city has around 5,000 places for short or long-term accommodation. Photo: © Michael Mazohl.

Journalism Award “from below”

The Journalism Award “from below” for respectful poverty coverage was created in 2010 as a project of the Austrian Anti Poverty Network. It is aiming to promote a kind of journalism which reflects the many facets of poverty, treats people concerned in a respectful way, allows their voices to be heard, lets their realities become visible and examines the societal causes of poverty. The prize “from below” is designed by people experiencing poverty and by journalists. The jury exclusively consists of people experiencing poverty.

Since 2015, with the support of the ERSTE Foundation and the EAPN (European Anti-Poverty Network), an international dissemination of the prize has been in progress and workshops have been organised. Most recently, the Journalism Award “from below” was presented for the first time in Hungary, Croatia, Finland and Iceland. This article by Sandra Knopp and Udo Seelhofer was awarded in the online category in 2017.

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