The November 2020 census, organized by Bruss'Help, shows that the number of homeless people in Brussels rose from 4,380 in 2018 to 5,313 in 2020, an increase of 21%. This was the sixth census since 2008, and the numbers have never stopped increasing. In this opinion article, we propose 4 essential pillars for the implementation of a Global Plan to End Homelessness: Affordable Housing, Support, Prevention and Hospitality. To guide this plan and to verify the impact of the measures on the ground, a nominative list of incoming and outgoing rough sleepers and their vulnerability is probably indispensable.
The King Baudouin Foundation recently presented the results of the counts in Ghent, Arlon, Liège, Leuven and the province of Limburg. The figures vary from 218 homeless people in Arlon to 1,817 in Ghent. The practical and organizational aspect of these counts does not allow an accurate estimation of the number of people on the street. The real numbers are therefore higher, and they show that the people we see on the street every day, are only the tip of the iceberg: the majority of the people counted use temporary shelters, (over)live in camps, or stay with friends.
There is no history of these numbers - except in Brussels - but all social workers agree that the problem is constantly increasing.
It is a very heterogeneous group: Belgians and non-Belgians, documented and undocumented, young and old, men and women, families and singles, with or without income, with or without health problems, etc.
Some people spend only a few months on the streets, a large group - up to half in Brussels - have to endure many years of life on the streets. A significant number die on the streets.
For some reason, we, as a society, are not able to prevent so many people from ending up on the streets.
In the meantime, the Covid-19 health crisis will have demonstrated how foolish it is to leave a whole group of people on the street. In mid-March, when the entire country was under lockdown, homeless organizations had to organize (quickly) to keep these people from starving and dying of thirst on the streets and ensure that their basic health needs could be met. Every year, we invest millions in emergency measures and aid that perpetuate the problem rather than provide a structural solution.
About 40 years ago, homelessness was barely present in Brussels. As our society has become richer and richer, we have gradually left more and more people behind, literally in the gutter, and we have gradually become indifferent to it.
In 2017, a dozen homelessness and housing organizations came together to launch the 400Roofs campaign. The goal was to find 400 additional homes before the end of 2020 and thus be able to rehouse all the people living on the streets in Brussels.
In the end, the campaign will have created nearly 100 additional homes. At the same time, the number of homeless people in Brussels has increased considerably.
This shows us that, in order to end homelessness, putting a certain number of people in housing is not enough. It is necessary to have a Global Plan to End Homelessness. If we want such a plan to work, it will have to be implemented by the government, involve directly and in a coordinated way as many stakeholders as possible, take a long-term perspective, and be based on four pillars.
Pillar One: Affordable Housing
This is certainly the central pillar for ending homelessness. In almost every city in Belgium, there is a shortage of affordable housing, especially for the more socially and economically vulnerable populations. Addressing this situation is one of the first tasks of such a comprehensive plan.
It is not about creating new shelters or emergency housing, but about requisitioning, renovating and converting the many empty buildings, accelerating the construction of new social housing, rethinking and relaxing building rules and procedures, and giving priority to the most vulnerable, especially those who are currently homeless, regardless of their place on the waiting list. The establishment of a so-called nominative list of people's degree of vulnerability could act as a waiting list, ensure that the most vulnerable get off the streets as quickly as possible, and also provide a better idea of the flow of people sleeping on our streets.
Second pillar: Support
Once in housing, a significant part of the people will need individual and intensive support for a more or less long period in order to be able to live independently in their new "home". Indeed, for some of them, it is not an easy task to find their way through all the responsibilities and administrative obligations of our society. Investing in personal support for formerly homeless people is therefore an indispensable part of the overall plan to end homelessness.
Third pillar: Prevention
Today, in Brussels, we see that the joint efforts of the different rehousing programs fail to make a real difference. Even if they manage to rehouse about 100 people a year, the number of homeless people continues to rise. This means that the arrival on the street remains more important than the rehousing.
So we also need to work on preventing people from becoming homeless: working to fill the gaps in our social and health care system to prevent situations from getting worse. People coming out of prisons, psychiatric institutions, people who are evicted from their homes etc., must be helped at the right moment to prevent them from ending up on the streets. Individual and intensive guidance of risk groups is the third part of the comprehensive plan to end homelessness.
Pillar Four: Hospitality
Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that a significant part of the homeless population today are undocumented migrants. A solution must be found for these people as well, through the improvement of reception structures and a more humane immigration policy. To let them live on the streets as a deterrent is unworthy of a humane society.