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BELGIUM: Homeless in the Heart of EU

BRUSSELS, Sep 15 2008 (IPS) - On a wet afternoon in Brussels, a dishevelled man shelters from the elements in a side entrance to the city’s main railway station. Beside his feet a green canvas bag carries all his worldly possessions. He has been homeless for a decade now; he has asked several times to be given accommodation by the Belgian authorities, but his request has never been granted. Often he sleeps rough.

“It is very hard, especially in the winter,” he says. “I survive, but only just.”

Next month, this man will turn 51. Many in a similar situation have not made it to that age. Thirty-one people are known to have died in Brussels during 2007 because they had nowhere to live other than the streets. Their average age was 46.

“The most trying times for us can be when someone that we have been treating dies,” says Emilie Meessen, founder of Street Nurses, a team of young women who provide care to the homeless.

“In such cases we help organise funeral ceremonies and bring together the people that knew the deceased. If there is somebody who dies on the street that we and other organisations do not know, we still go to the morgue with flowers and try to organise something. Every year we have a tribute for people who have died. More and more people are added to the list every year but that does not necessarily mean that more people are dying on the street. It just means we are aware of more cases.”

In Belgium, as in many European countries, issues relating to homelessness are rarely discussed in the media, except around Christmas. Yet deaths among rough sleepers have taken place all year.

“During the summer festival season, for example, we often meet homeless people who have been assaulted by youths,” Meessen added. “Rain is a persistent problem as it destroys the cardboard that people use to try to keep warm. In this country, it can rain at any time of year.”

Reliable data on Belgium’s problem of homelessness is hard to come by, as the only exact records kept are of those who seek refuge in overnight shelters. Data provided by the Belgian government based on a study by an anti-poverty group puts the number of homeless in the country at 17,000, and the number for Brussels at 2,000. But it is widely assumed that the true figure is considerably higher.

“People do not choose to be homeless, they find themselves in that situation,” said Meessen. “It is very easy to say that these people don’t want to live in a house, but there are studies that suggest otherwise. There is not enough affordable social housing in this country. It really is a problem.”

Even though the right to shelter is enshrined in Belgium’s national constitution, social accommodation comprises just 6 percent of all housing in the country. According to the ministry for social integration in Brussels, this is the lowest proportion in the European Union.

A spokeswoman for the ministry said that efforts to address homelessness have been hampered by the fragmented nature in which the country is governed. Belgium is split between its two main provinces: the predominantly Dutch-speaking Flanders and the Francophone Wallonia. Both enjoy a large degree of autonomy from the federal administration in Brussels, including over financial and housing matters. “There are good things happening on both sides,” the spokeswoman said. “But like with most things in Belgium, they don’t talk to each other enough.”

The Belgian federal government has promised to hold a conference in the near future to assess how this lack of coordination can be overcome.

A recent report by a Brussels-based association of reception centres for the homeless (known by its French acronym AMA) stated that Brussels had about 38,000 apartments or houses reserved for people on low income in 2007. More than 25,000 families or individuals were on a waiting list for this accommodation. Sometimes it can take up to six years before a needy family is housed, the report found, citing a similar waiting period for Wallonia. In Flanders, the average waiting period is just over two years.

Vinciane Lenoir, author of the AMA report, suggests that those who have to rent their accommodation are at a considerably higher risk of hardship – including the possibility of being left without access to permanent shelter – than those who can afford to own their home.

“The fight against poverty and social exclusion must take account of the availability of good quality accommodation and its affordability. It seems that in Belgium the fact of being a tenant increases the likelihood of poverty. If we compare with those who are property owners we find that 29 percent of tenants are poor, while just 9 percent of owners fall into that category.”

Lenoir added: “More and more, families and individuals in a precarious situation because of their low income encounter difficulties in having proper accommodation. The question regularly comes down to what you do when rent exceeds half of a family’s income. Everyone with a low income is especially vulnerable to financial problems when faced with unexpected costs such as a fine or a medical bill. If a rent is strangling someone, you can bet that they won’t pay it for a long time, with the result that they will accumulate debts.”

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