Recession-hit Brussels recently welcomed in a New Year, putting on a brave face. But for people living below the breadline in Brussels and the rest of the region, it can be a time of heartache and despair. In response to the growing problem of homelessness here, Brussels Capital Region once again provided winter accommodation to its homeless population, some of them teenagers. They are nevertheless still often reduced to begging on the streets – pinning their few hopes on the generosity of caring shoppers and passers-by.
But, as economic difficulties continue to bite deep, is there any generosity left? I took to the streets of two locations, one a poor area of Brussels, the other in affluent Waterloo, to try and find out.
The assignment was to find out what it is really like for people to resort to begging on the streets. I deliberately dressed in the oldest and most tatty clothing I could lay my hands on and, in the time honoured tradition of begging, set up a piece of cardboard in front of me bearing the plea in French “J’ai Faim Et Sans Abri. Aidez Moi” (“Hungry and homeless. Please Help”).
Brandishing a battered plastic bowl, which I hoped would soon be resounding to the sound of money, I had swapped my usual comfortable office desk for a place on the cold pavement and put myself at the mercy of the good folk of Brussels.
Blessedly, it wasn´t very long after I’d squatted down at my chosen (and particularly uncomfortable) pitch – the old working class district at the foot of the city’s Palais de Justice – that coins, albeit of the small denomination variety, started rattling into the container.
Against the sound of metal hitting plastic, I had to pinch myself to remember that I was actually being given money from total strangers for doing nothing other than look rather pitiful and desperate. A short time later, a woman bent down, dropped a couple of coins in the container and wished me, in French, a happy New Year. She paused, turned back and said (this time in English), “If you are round here, you can come to me for your dinner.”
I looked and the kind-hearted woman, who must have been in her 70s, had dropped five, one-euro coins into the cup. A small amount, yes, but it’s the thought that counts, as the saying goes. I countered them out with the same enthusiasm a starving man would if presented with a luxury meal.
Another passer-by directed me to the nearest shelter and asked if I would like some toiletries. She burst into tears as she was saying it. Soon afterwards, a young woman said she had no money to offer but, instead, asked if I wanted some warm clothing.
After what seemed like an eternity – but what was, in fact, only about 35 minutes – without attracting the slightest interest, a man touched me on the shoulder and offered me a pair of socks. I thanked him and he replied saying, “Don’t stay in the cold too long.”
After a couple of hours or so, I decided that the feeling of humiliation had been enough and packed up. Brussels had been relatively kind to this “vagrant” but, I wondered, would I fare better in a wealthier area? To put that to the test and by way of contrast, my next stop was just off Chaussée de Waterloo in Waterloo, just a few kilometres from my previous spot. I was now at the centre of an enclave for rich commuters and expats.
It’s an area where it is not uncommon for properties to swap hands for over €1m and, unlike the previous pitch, a part of the region that simply oozes wealth. Fertile ground for begging, you might think. However, I found that for all the relative kindness shown to me by people in the previous spot, the majority of those in Waterloo barely turned their heads in apparent indifference when they passed me by.
One man shouted that he wasn’t going to give me anything “because you are going to spend it on drugs.” Many people on the streets are not only homeless but experience mental illness and/or addiction issues but, I wondered, did he really think that’s what I would have done with whatever pittance he may have offered?
Many people seemed desperate to avoid eye contact, let alone offer any words of comfort. The time dragged on like an eternity and it was painful and noticeable just how slowly the cash trickled in. It was also here that I encountered my only particularly aggressive and negative reaction.
A burly man pointed to my pathetic little sign and shouted at me, “Trouves un boulot” (it roughly translates as “Find a job”). I felt like telling him that, unlike the poor souls whose plight leaves them on the streets, I would be returning to my perfectly pleasant middle class lifestyle later that day.
After nearly another two hours huddling in the winter chill, I counted out the money from my Waterloo takings. I’d been given the rather pathetic sum of €4.30, compared with €20.90 in Brussels. I later distributed my takings to “real” beggars on the streets of Brussels. One offered to let me crash on his “pad”, an old mattress that he’d installed in a doorway.
Verdict? Are people in poorer areas more generous than their more wealthy counterparts? Based on this showing, I was tempted to say “yes” but, of course, it is best not to generalise on such matters. It could be that I simply got lucky at my first pitch and the people I encountered were just feeling rather generous that day. Who knows?
There was an awful incident in the UK recently in which a laughing school-age teen filmed his friends kicking an elderly, homeless man onto the floor in broad daylight. I had also heard stories across Brussels of homeless people being urinated on and physically abused. I should consider myself lucky that, generally, I was extended a hand of kindness, instead of a foot.
The fact is that my (unscientific) experiment underlined what we all know: that society is, despite the ongoing economic problems, still full of people with kind hearts. It was, in a way, an uplifting conclusion to a cold day.
I did a similar experiment in 2014 and am horrified to see that our society in Belgium has allowed the numbers of homeless to increase again. But despite the apparently desperate outlook for the homeless in Belgium, even in these hard-pressed times, there is clearly some goodwill left.
That was the abiding memory I took from my short stint on the streets of Brussels and Waterloo. Ironically the generosity was, on this occasion at least, more obvious in a much poorer part of the region compared with a wealthy one. What is clear though, is that with growing numbers sleeping rough or in emergency/temporary accommodation every night, Belgium can’t afford not to act.
By Martin Banks
|Homelessness in Brussels
Some 300 additional shelters were opened in Brussels this winter so that no homeless people should have to spend the cold winter months on the street. Still, it is estimated that at any given time, at least 150 people, or ‘rough sleepers’ as they are sometimes called, are bedding down on Brussels’ streets.
In total, 1,283 shelters across the city will remain open until the end of April and extra places can be made available where needed. In the past, the shelters had not stayed open so long, a reflection perhaps of the growing seriousness of the issue.
Marie-Anne Robberecht from Samusocial, the Brussels-based organisation in charge of the coordination of the shelters and emergency help for the homeless, says that the group promises to provide shelter to everyone who needs it. That includes not only providing a roof over their heads, but also hot meals, shower facilities and medical assistance. It also offers psychosocial support to help the homeless find a way off the streets, she said.
On any one night this winter, up to 1,000 homeless people will have slept at one of the organisation’s centres. Most of them are men but homeless people also includes single women with children.
Freek Spinnewijn, director of the Brussels-based European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA), said, “Homelessness is increasing fast in Brussels and street homelessness/rough sleeping rose sharply between 2010 and 2014.”
Data supplied by FEANTSA shows that “rooflessness” (people forced to live at least part of the day on the street, which includes people in emergency night shelter/squat) increased from 1,947 in 2010 to 2,603 in 2014 or by 34 %. The number of people that are permanently on the street also increased by one third and they make up half of the roofless people.
According to Spinnewijn, “These are quite massive increases and there is no reason to believe that the increase stopped after 2014.” He added that a new count was held in 2016 but that the data has not yet been released.
“Begging is a sign that public policies addressing homelessness are not sufficiently effective. If people need to beg to cater for their needs, there is clearly something wrong with the support available/provided by public authorities.”
“Crisis can be an overused term and yet what we are witnessing is nothing short of a social emergency,” Spinnewijn says. “Across the EU, four million people experience homelessness every year and yet there still seems to be a frankly staggering lack of awareness of this fact.”
FEANTSA says homelessness does not just have a potentially irreversible effect on the individual concerned; it also has an enormous negative impact on cities and society as a whole, acting as a barrier to employment and social rights.
Belgium, of course, has not escaped the impact of the well documented migration crisis that has engulfed the EU in recent years. Indeed, it is feared some of the migrants/refugees displaced by the now dismantled “Jungle” refugee camp at Calais may have headed to Brussels and are among those begging on the city’s streets.
But the problem is rather closer to home than some might like to admit, as is evidenced by the Belgian regional parliaments’ decision to explore fresh solutions to homelessness, particularly among children and young people.
The Brussels-based Children’s Rights Commissioner Bruno Vanobbergen, who estimates that one in three homeless in Brussels is a minor, describes homeless children as “refugees in their own land”.
Homelessness leads to lack of privacy, and it often requires one or more changes of school, meaning they must leave their friends and give up after-school pastimes, he said. The children become uprooted and at the mercy of the adults around them.
His institution recently published a report on homelessness of minors which recommends a more preventive approach when it comes to evictions of families with children, a more ambitious approach to the provision of social housing, and the provision of emergency and transitional housing by local authorities.