Housing project for male victims of violence: a place of refuge

Very few want to show weakness: If men are the victims of domestic violence, it is almost always a taboo subject. An Oldenburg housing project takes in fathers and other men in precarious living situations.

60 square meters for a father with a child or two childless men: In Oldenburg-Dietrichsfeld, men are to get some peace and quiet. Image: Hannes von der Fecht

No names of residents are written on the doorbells, only "Mannersache" is written on the front door of the apartment building. In the middle of an inconspicuous block in Oldenburg’s Dietrichsfeld district is a unique housing project: a refuge in the event of domestic violence – for men who have become its victims or are at least in a precarious living situation. The men’s house is more of a shared apartment: a three-room apartment on the second floor, about 60 square meters, which can accommodate a father with his child or two men.

Michi and Bernhard currently occupy the apartment. "I’m not crazy about cleaning, but I’m a neat person," Michi says. "I’ve been living here for six weeks now and I feel really comfortable." And indeed, the apartment is tidy and very clean. Last fall, the father of a son came back to Oldenburg after two years in Spain. He had fled there in 2012 – from the verbal attacks of his mentally ill partner.

"Felt like a winner"

"At the time, I just wanted to get away because the pressure on me was becoming unbearable," Michi recounts. "This feeling of knowing that at any moment I would be thrown out the door made my stomach ache." What brought him back to Germany was his longing for his son. And it seemed as if things had eased up with his then partner, as if she wanted to take him back in. After three days, she kicked him out of the apartment again, says Michi.

By chance, he then became aware of the offer of the Manner-Wohn-Hilfe. He called and made an appointment to get to know the place – and a few days later, he received an acceptance letter. "I don’t feel like a weakling as a result, but more like a winner because I avoided the confrontation." But Michi also knows how hard it is for many men to show weakness.

Walter Dinninghoff is one of the co-founders of "Manner-Wohn-Hilfe e. V.," which supports the housing project. In 2000, he joined forces with other social pedagogues and cultural educators to form the association. "I’ve been working in the community of the local neighborhood for a long time," Dinninghoff says. "My colleagues and I were often confronted with precarious family situations or met men who didn’t know where to go." This impulse gave rise to the idea of a facility that offers men in particular a first place of refuge.

Since the WG was founded in 2001, the telephone of Walter Dinninghoff and his colleagues has not stopped ringing. With the exception of a few renovation phases, the apartment has been constantly occupied. Almost every day he receives calls from men and counseling centers from all over Germany who are interested in a place. In the end, however, only those seekers who have their center of life in Oldenburg and are at least 25 years old can actually move in.

Dinninghoff’s and the association’s empirical values are consistent with the figures of a dark field study conducted by the Lower Saxony State Office of Criminal Investigation: 40,000 randomly selected people took part in the survey in Lower Saxony in 2013, of which 18,940 people – 51.3 percent of them women – responded to experiences of domestic violence in couple relationships. The proportion of female victims of both physical and psychological violence in couple relationships was 9.4 percent, while the proportion of male victims was 6.1 percent. With a figure of 2.3 million male Lower Saxons between years of age, this would result in a number of around 140,000 victims.

For up to three months, the apartment is open to those in need. "This simply has the background that the men should come to rest and collect themselves, while remaining capable of everyday life and work," says Dinninghoff. "However, we also want the men to actively address their situation and to look for a new place to live or go back within a quarter of a year." In fact, however, very few return to their old environment. Social pedagogues support the men in their search for a new place to live, a lawyer or even in making contact with counseling centers, for example.

Residents pay 90 euros per week, as stipulated in a contract of use. From this fee, the association finances the operating costs, any renovation work and the furniture, but also the public relations work. The "Manner-Wohn-Hilfe" does not have to pay any rent itself: The apartment is provided by GSG Wohnungsgesellschaft. The project receives no municipal or state support. And so every year the association applies again to the city of Oldenburg for financial support – and every year again without success. "For many, an offer for men equals an offer against women," says Dinninghoff. "Especially in political circles, we are met with skepticism."

Insisting on the principle of equality

A skepticism that Klaus Schonfeld, area representative of the "Vaternotruf.de" in Hamburg, also knows. For years, he has been campaigning for the establishment of a men’s shelter in the Hanseatic city. He is not concerned with trivializing acts of violence against women, but rather with the principle of equality. "A clear fundamental right of our constitution is equality before the law, before the state and before society," Schonfeld says. His experience, as far as the need for a men’s shelter in Hamburg is concerned, can be compared with that from Oldenburg. Every day, he has to deal with fathers who are thrown out of the shared apartment at short notice and who experience domestic violence.

In Schleswig-Holstein, too, things could be better for dealing with men as victims of violence in partnerships: On January 1, the counseling center for abused men in Kiel had to close, although 65,000 euros would have been enough for another six months – if only one of the parliamentary groups in the state parliament had spoken out in favor of its continuation. But none of them did.

In Oldenburg, Walter Dinninghoff has already had to deal with cases in which fathers were disadvantaged under family law. "Behind this is the deeply anachronistic idea that mothers are closer and more important to children than fathers," he says, "and that is of course great nonsense nowadays."

Michi no longer had to fight for custody: His son was old enough at the time of separation to decide for himself which parent he would stay with. Now Michi is looking for a new place to live. In six weeks, he has to get out of the inconspicuous apartment building. "I’m actively looking for an apartment at the moment and could also imagine a shared apartment again," he says. When his room becomes available soon, he hopes that "men will come forward again who don’t bury their heads in the sand, but deal with their problem offensively." In any case, Walter Dinninghoff’s phone is already ringing again.

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