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1 Different Welfare Regimes, Similar Outcomes? The Impact of Public Policy on Homeless People’s Exit Chances in Berlin and Los Angeles H omelessness is a complex societal condition that has proliferated over the past three decades in most industrialized nation-states of the global north. Moreover, nations’ homeless populations have become increasingly diverse, more closely reflecting the poverty populations inhabiting these countries. It is commonly understood that homelessness in industrialized nation-states is a function of the complicated interplay between individual risk factors and broader structural root causes, including economic restructuring and ensuing marginality , demographic changes, and a shortage of affordable housing. Such factors, experts agree, also function as substantial barriers toward overcoming homelessness , because highly stigmatized homeless people face particular obstacles in overcoming market barriers. There is less consensus, however, on the impact of government intervention on homelessness and attempts to overcome it, simply because the nature and extent of government intervention varies greatly among industrialized countries. The United States, for instance, provides little assistance to poor and homeless people, and neoliberal welfare-state restructuring is often identified as a major structural root cause of homelessness as well as an exit barrier.1 Germany, on the other hand, has a much more comprehensive national welfare system that includes specific service options for homeless people, resulting in more extensive benefits covering income, shelter, health care, and other needs. Considering the differences in the nature and extent of welfare systems, it is rather perplexing that the prevalence rates of homelessness were almost as high in Germany as in the United States in the late 1990s, affecting close to 1 percent of the total population.2 Not only that, but the extent of long-term homelessness (homeless spells lasting more than one year) was almost twice as high in Germany , affecting approximately two-thirds of all homeless people nationwide. As if this statistic were not surprising enough, the implementation of neoliberal welfare reforms in Germany in 2005 should have increased the numbers of homeless 2 Chapter 1 people, if the U.S. experiences with neoliberal policy were any indication, yet the numbers across the country continued to decline. Why did homelessness in Germany increase despite a more comprehensive welfare system, and why did it decline upon the enactment of neoliberal reforms? More precisely, what role does government intervention play in helping homeless people secure income and shelter and, ideally, move on to employment and housing? To provide answers to these questions, I decided to focus this comparative analysis on Berlin and Los Angeles, both dubbed “homeless capitals” for having the largest homeless populations of their respective countries (Mayer 1997). An urban focus is further warranted, because Germany and the United States are federal systems, giving state and local authorities a great deal of discretion regarding how, in compliance with federal welfare legislation, they organize their social welfare and homeless service systems, including the ways in which they incorporate the “third sector” of voluntary service providers. The two cities are good test cases for assessing the impact of public policy on homeless people and their chances to overcome homelessness, simply because they do, at first sight, seem to confirm the assertion that Germany’s welfare approach is superior. As I explain in more detail later in this chapter, homeless people in Berlin are provided with substantially more service options than their peers in Los Angeles. Yet, as elsewhere in Germany, the numbers of homeless people in Berlin continued to rise throughout the 1990s, homeless populations became more diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity, and long durations were common—homeless spells lasted longer in Berlin than in Los Angeles.3 Furthermore, the number of homeless people eventually declined despite the implementation of neoliberal policies and workfarist4 practices in Germany after 2005. To understand why homelessness has risen in Germany despite the existence of a comprehensive national welfare system and why local service and shelter options did not help reduce homelessness or decrease durations during the late 1990s, I conducted original empirical research in Berlin, which I compared to existing data from Los Angeles, where homelessness has been more extensively studied over the past twenty-five years.5 Specifically, I employed ethnographic research methods of participant observation and in-depth interviewing in three case studies in Berlin over the course of one year (1998–1999). This approach allowed me to document success and failure among twenty-eight single adult homeless people, including four women and four foreign nationals, and to assess the role...


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