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Losing your way: EU mobile migrants who find themselves destitute and homeless in Brussels
That’s the opinion of Bert De Bock who works on the frontline of the homelessness crisis in Belgium. As an outreach worker for the homeless organisation Diogenes since 2008, he comes to the aid of people living on the streets of the capital, building a relationship of trust before helping them access vital services. “First, we try to establish a contact, we talk and then try and open a network around the person,” he says.
As he describes a few of their individual stories, he expresses his frustration at the administrative hurdles so many of them face. Individual hardship, a lack of a coherent policy at an EU level, Belgium’s complex layers of federal, regional and municipal administration… they all contribute to desperate situations.
Brussels is one of the European cities where the problem is at a crisis point. Diogenes’ records show that in 2018, the proportion of European migrants it helped (43.9%), overtook for the first time the number of Belgians (41.9%).
To best describe the surrealist and distressing situations that people find themselves in, De Bock shared with the Bulletin some of his case studies of EU mobile migrants who no longer have a place to call home (names have been changed).
A homeless Italian woman believes she is related to Belgian royals
Many people on the streets of Brussels have mental health issues. Antonia is a 60-year-old woman from Italy, who De Bock describes as “a really nice lady”.
“Her emotions switch very fast from being very angry, to very funny; if she’s happy, she’ll sing songs in Italian,” he says. One reason why Antonia came to Belgium was because her psychotic delusions centre on her belief that she is a member of the Belgian royal family.
Hospitalised twice and with no legal rights in Belgium except urgent medical healthcare, De Bock and his team set up care with a mental health service and public health medical centre, with medication delivered to her local pharmacy and a medical card issued by the Brussels city municipality social services (CPAS). They also made a request to the CPAS for financial help and an official address.
But Antonia’s wellbeing was spiralling. She was going to the toilet and taking her clothes off in public; she was frequently being aggressed; and she was in and out of hospital emergency departments during psychotic crises.
The Diogenes team felt they had no choice but to seek an involuntary order for psychiatric care for a period of observation. Antonia was sent to a psychiatric hospital in another commune in Brussels, where an initial measure of 40 days was extended to one year.
De Bock sought a judge’s order for a legal guardian to manage her affairs: “I found one who spoke Italian and he arranged a new Italian passport, but he was unable to make contact with services in Italy who could help her.”
Even with medical treatment it appeared very difficult to stabilise Antonia’s condition. She felt as if she was in prison and the hospital found her increasingly difficult, relates De Bock. In spring 2019, a bed was found for her in a hospital in Wallonia. But she continued to suffer from delusions about the Belgian royal family and wanted to return to her life on the street. Two months later, Antonia returned to a Brussels hospital, but it wanted to stop treating her and was organising her return to the street.
De Bock recognises the difficulty in finding the right facility for Antonia, but believes a more autonomous psychiatric care centre would be preferable. He plans with the help of her lawyer to increase her access to rights based on the fact she is too ill to travel to her home country. Another option is to take the CPAS to court to force access to a care centre, but that would take six months. The request for financial aid has still not been treated.
De Bock highlights the difficulty of territory in Belgium. “Every time she goes from one municipality to another, we have to restart the administrative process. On the European scale, we have free circulation of people and of money and services, but not of health services and rights,” he says.
“I don’t know what will happen with her. She smokes a lot of cigarettes but she doesn’t take drugs or drink alcohol. Many people think that it’s the individual’s fault when they are homeless because they are drinking or something else, but Antonia is not really responsible for her situation, this is a political issue.”
A man with no state
Another of De Bock’s cases is a single 55-year-old man from the former Yugoslavia who is suffering from failing physical health and depression. He is also trapped in a maze of bureaucratic procedure. Boris arrived in Belgium in 1992 during the country’s civil war. Although he was recognised as a refugee in 1996, he never completed the final formalities.
“He’s often around train stations in Brussels, but he doesn’t sleep outside, says De Bock, who clarifies that in 2018, 34% of people seen by Diogenes were living on the streets but had somewhere to stay at night. “It might not be a nice place so they prefer to be outside during the day where they can see other people and beg for money and cigarettes. Boris cries easily when speaking about his situation and he drinks, but not to a point of severe alcoholism,” he says.
Boris worked for five years in Germany before returning to Belgium and starting the procedure for residency. Every six weeks he goes to the immigration office at the town hall to extend his Annex 15 permit, which costs €10 each time. “He has been waiting for residency for eight years, maybe one day he will get an answer,” reflects De Bock.
A legal aid lawyer has advised Boris not to start a new refugee status procedure as he would lose a minimum benefit he receives from the local CPAS. In possession of an invalid passport and having already futilely contacted the embassy of each country that was once part of Yugoslavia to obtain a new one, his lawyer recommends that he should continue to pursue them. As Yugoslavia no longer exists he could also start a procedure to be declared stateless, although the procedure takes many years.
When asked for his thoughts on how the administrative burden on Boris could be relieved, De Bock calls for a reduction in the waiting time for the renewal of Annex 15 permits as well as a quicker service at immigration offices. For long and complicated histories like that of Boris, De Bock believes there should be specific procedures to find solutions.
When everything comes together
Among the homeless community, Polish men make up a large proportion (20% of Diogenes’ public in 2018). The story of 53 year-old Aleksander shows how there can be good outcomes, says De Bock. Living in Belgium for around 10 years, the former plumber became homeless after his divorce more than three years ago. He has two adult sons with legal residency.
"A lot of Polish migrants are working in Belgium for many years on the black market. This is society’s responsibility. Who hasn’t employed a cleaner or used a building labourer on the black market?" says De Bock. Many in the Polish community never fully integrated and legalised their situation in Belgium, he points out. “There is no safety net if you suffer an accident, a relationship breakdown or alcohol problems.”
Aleksander had legal residency in Belgium, but severe depression following his marriage breakdown led to heavy drinking. He lost his official income and became destitute and socially isolated, living in metro stations. De Bock first met him in hospital, “disorientated in space and time” due to the effects of alcoholism and says the social and medical teams were more concerned about treating the symptoms of his alcoholism than the cause.
Aleksander had a valid E+ card and De Bock was able to pursue his case with social services in the municipality of Schaerbeek, where crucially, he still had an administrative address. “We were just in time, they were about to deregister him,” says De Bock. It meant Aleksander had some rights and after a couple of months in hospital and a homeless shelter, he had regular income and stopped drinking.
“Everything came together, you cannot stop drinking when you are seen as a problem. It all starts with a good conversation and a little self-esteem and that’s what happened here. He has moved into a shelter that accompanies residents to live independently.”
For De Bock, the key was the administrative address. “It’s an important instrument in our work as it opens up the possibility of work, money and somewhere to live; once you’re in, you’re in. We are arguing for more open access to Europeans. I can understand that you want to protect access to social security for newcomers, but for someone who has lived here for many years and who for one reason or another has lost their rights, the situation should be easier.”
“With Aleksander, we were just in time, but it is also important to speak about all the people where we were not in time and the difference can be just one day,” says De Bock.
He reflects on the waste of time and money as well as the burden on society caused by an incoherent system in dealing with people on the street. “I think it’s in part a European problem and in part a Belgian one,” he concludes.
Helping EU homeless citizens find their way
Offering a range of practical solutions is the European Program for Integration and Migration (EPIM), a network of 25 private organisations co-founded by Belgium’s leading philanthropy organisation, the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF). One of its projects, Protecting the Rights of Destitute EU mobile Citizens (PRODEC), is equipping homeless EU migrants and the frontline services that help them with information on legal rights. Funding has been extended for a second two-year phase to follow up on its findings.
PRODEC is led by Brussels-based NGO, the European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless (FEANTSA). Policy officer Mauro Striano points to the lack of a clear legal framework for destitute EU migrants and the need for a holistic approach to homelessness: “There are notions in EU law, like having a genuine chance to find a job, but what does that mean?”
Lawyers and homeless professionals are brought together in the PRODEC project to learn about each other’s work. “People are on the streets and social workers need to provide quick solutions, while lawyers do not necessarily have a knowledge of homelessness issues,” explains Striano.
To assist the process, FEANTSA has published a guide for professionals outlining EU free movement law and the rights of mobile EU citizens, along with other practical material.
Variations in national states’ treatment of the homeless complicates the picture along with the trend towards restricting citizens’ rights. The rise in Roma encampments on the outskirts of Brussels was a result of successive waves of expulsion from France. “There were voluntary repatriation programmes, but many people decided to move to Belgium instead,” says Striano.
Such programmes are an option when life becomes too difficult, although they work best when there is a willingness to return, according to Striano. “If we believe in the concept of European citizenship and free movement, we have to allow for people to fail and to find a solution out of it.”
Although it is too early to assess the full impact of the project’s funding, Striano believes there is now an increased understanding of solutions at national and EU level.
Originally from Italy, Striano draws on his own experience volunteering in a homeless day centre in Brussels. “It changes my perspective and gives me a reality check,” says Striano, who recommends such experience for EU policy workers. “There are dynamics I know about in a more precise way than just reading about them,” he adds.