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Won’t be home for Christmas

Credit: Pixabay

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Won’t be home for Christmas

The clouds above draw a deep breath – plumping themselves for the onset of rainfall, an intemperate wind shakes the morning frost from the trees, and a discharge of bitter, inky pollution suspends itself mid-air, above the heads of those walking down the Avenue de Cortenbergh – their eyes rooted into their smartphones and their hands sheathed in leather gloves.

Down below, sat in the middle of the Schuman roundabout – a man attempts to steady his convulsing jaw. His teeth have been chattering throughout the quiet of the evening, with the lights from the Christmas decorations illuminating the deep-set wrinkles in his windbeaten face.

Most mornings, when he can muster the energy, he counts the number of people walking past – principally to concentrate his mind on something other than the abandonment he has found himself in, homeless in a country of which he knows nothing about. Hands dug deep inside his coat sleeves, he discreetly points his withered fingers at people as they walk by, as if to convince himself that yes, there are other sentiment beings here in this peculiar land – this feverish, schizophrenic merry-go-round  – its magnetic pull dragging Europe’s best and brightest to the continent’s political core.

The man is, like the rest of us, dying. But he is traversing that path with an unobstructed velocity. He has however forgotten that death is a thing that happens to us. It’s not important to him anymore. There are other more pressing issues.

“More often than not, it’s the feet that are the worst,” Mauro Striano, a volunteer at La Fontaine day centre in the city tells me. “Hours every day spent walking in rough conditions with bad footwear completely destroys them. It’s not out of the ordinary to see the feet heavily diseased, or even fraught with parasites.”

Sent out every Friday afternoon, BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.

If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every Friday, subscribe to the newsletter here.

Schuman’s homeless man doesn’t walk much. He wears a pair of old black pair of tennis trainers. One has dirt matted into the laces, the other has none – he uses this lace to fasten a plastic Carrefour shopping bag, which appears as if it contains a number of empty glass bottles.

Figures published earlier this year by the homeless support centre La Strada, counted rising figures of homeless people in the region. A May report from the organisation put the number at 4,187 people in the city in 2018, a significant growth on the previous reading taken in 2016, with over an increase of over 800.  The organisation cites two main reasons for the upturn in homelessness in Brussels. Firstly, the growing economic insecurity of people on low incomes in the Brussels – there has been a 73.4% increase in the number of people on Social Integration Income benefits resulting in a “critical access to both public and private housing.”


Secondly, the organisation states that “the enlargement of the European Union has generated an increased influx of European populations from new member states” in which countries themselves have not necessarily established the frameworks by which to accommodate migration flows.

“Most of the people we see come from either Poland or Romania,” Striano says. “The Romanians often come with their families, so are given priority because they need to take care of their children.” Around 70% of people who come into La Fontaine are immigrants – and around half of this number from EU member states, he adds.

Every morning at Maximillian Park in Brussels’ Northern Quarter, refugees who have fled some of the world’s most war-torn areas such as the Sudan or Eritrea convene to receive aid from the Citizen’s Platform for Refugee Support. “During the winter months, conditions for homeless refugees are incredibly difficult,” Adriana Costa Santos, Co-President of the migrant charity, the Citizen’s Platform for Refugee Support, tells me. “Our volunteers are constantly confronted by refugees in the most horrific on conditions – many haven’t eaten for days, have contracted hypothermia, and are in desperate need of a shower.”

Moreover, due to a strict application of the Dublin Regulation – the agreement that establishes the member state responsible for the processing of any asylum application, many refugees are unable to claim asylum in Belgium, Costa Santos adds. “This results in many of the migrants being constantly arrested by the police and kept in detention centres for long periods of time.”

“These people walk around the streets in fear,” Costa Santos says. “Not only do they find it difficult to legally settle here, but emotionally as well – apart from the hard work of NGOs and various charities – they are not welcomed into Europe as they should be, fleeing the perilous conditions from which they have come.”

Despite Brussels Minister of Welfare and Health, Alain Maron, recently opening the annual plan for winter shelter in aid of homeless people – providing 3,200 places for winter care, there is still clearly the need to spread the message that homelessness, for refugees, migrants and citizens, should be something at the forefront of our minds all year round. “Christmas is a time when we receive many volunteers,” Costa Santos says. “But we really need their help throughout the year, too.”

I haven’t seen the homeless man of Schuman roundabout for several days now – a strange occurrence, as I had passed him on a regular basis before. I remember the last time vividly – our eyes briefly met as he cautiously outstretched a skeletal arm towards me, and, unfolding his hardened fingers and presenting me his palm, he said something through those chattering teeth of his that brought a tear to my eye: “Merry Christmas.”


Sent out every Friday afternoon, BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.

If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every Friday, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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