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Brussels homeless organisations brace for cold spell

15:25 06/01/2024

Organisations that provide aid to homeless people in Brussels are scrambling to prepare for an oncoming cold snap amid a shortage of space in shelters.

The Belgian capital has activated its "cold plan", which includes adding 155 emergency places to existing shelters, Bruzz reports.

But aid organisations still fear that there is not enough capacity to shelter the city’s vulnerable when temperatures drop below freezing from Sunday.

Most of the additional reception places will be in a new centre in Anderlecht, according to Brussels minister Alain Maron (Ecolo).

Of those 155 extra places, 120 are reserved for single men. The remaining are for families (25) and in medical centres (10). Brussels'Help will run them, together with the French-speaking Red Cross and Samusocial.

“These places will be made available to homeless people for one month from the opening date [until 8 February], 24 hours a day,” said Maron’s spokesman Simon Vandamme, adding that the emergency shelter welcomes everyone, regardless of residence status.

Brussels has more than 5,000 shelters for the homeless, including 3,084 emergency shelters that have been open year-round since the pandemic. Some 1,500 of those are only for asylum seekers and funded with federal money.

But the city has more than 7,000 homeless people, according to estimates, and Benjamin Brooke, director of homeless organisation Doucheflux, points out the extra spaces that come with the cold plan fall far short of meeting their needs.

“It's like we're surprised every year that it's cold,” Brooke said, adding that some vulnerable homeless people currently considered to be sheltered will still expeience hardship in icy temperatures.

“A short cold spell is not a problem for people in poorly heated houses, but after a few days they will also be more likely to knock on the door of the emergency shelter,” said Brooke.

“This also applies to people who usually prefer not to knock on Samusocial's door. The longer it stays cold, the sooner they accept a bed for a few days. So whether the extra emergency stations are sufficient depends on how long the cold spell lasts.”

When the cold plan is active, some Brussels train stations remain open around the clock to serve as a place where the homeless can keep warm. But Brooke said that this was hardly a cure to the homelessness crisis.

“Opening the stations is also just improvisation,” said Brooke. “We will never call that a solution. For that you really have to offer people housing.”

Non-profit organisation Street Nurses echoed concerns for the city’s vulnerable, saying it has seen an uptick in requests for their services.

Written by Helen Lyons