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More homeless families in Brussels as support systems struggle to cope

Children of the homeless refugees families who are living inside the North station in Brussels eat donated food. (BELGA PHOTO NICOLAS MAETERLINC)
05:40 16/11/2021

The number of homeless people in Brussels has been on the rise for many months. Among these homeless people, there are increasing numbers of families. This has led to the situation becoming very tense in reception centres across the city. At the Ariane centre in Forest, which mainly deals with homeless families, its 12 rooms can accommodate 35 people, but sometimes hotel rooms also need to be used.

The Ariane centre is an emergency reception facility which aims to provide shelter for the most vulnerable, launch initial psychosocial assistance measures, and try to find lasting solutions for those homeless families it hosts. The reasons for these families coming to the centre are numerous but most include a lack of income, loss of housing, or domestic violence.

Marie, a young mother, stays at the facility with her four-year-old child, and has been there for nearly two-and-a-half months after she fled her abusive husband. "I didn't feel safe at home any more," she explains. "I left to protect my child. I was in a situation of terror. I had no other choice."

What she found at the Ariane centre was much more than just a roof over her head. "Initially, it's a little difficult, psychologically, but here I found people willing to listen and be sympathetic,” she says. “I have had a good experience with the people who work here. It is not a shelter where people will find themselves alone with their problems. Here I am not alone; we have support, the children are looked after well and given activities. I share my story with the other people here, and it feels good to talk with people who have experienced the same thing as me."

For people like Marie, the Ariane centre is not a long-term solution and the time they can stay there is limited. Every effort is made to reintroduce families into society in a safe environment, but with the housing crisis in Brussels, and a bottleneck in all other services, many times the emergency stay is prolonged.

The phone rings non-stop at the centre but the places only become available sporadically due to the fact many cannot move on to free up room. "There is a significant number of requests to come to the centre, but there is also a difficulty to find places for those already here and find sustainable solutions for them,” explains Didier Stapaerts, the centre’s director. “It's a problem, we have to keep people longer and we are less able to provide places for new emergencies."

The number of homeless people is growing much faster than solutions to the problem. The situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, migration and the problem of access to housing in Brussels. All this makes the situation critical.

The biggest problem is the accessibility of housing: "There is a lack of housing at a moderate cost, which corresponds to the available means of these people, who are often in a precarious situation, with replacement incomes or fairly low incomes from work,” Didier Stapaerts says. “There is also a lack of public sector-run housing. Then there is also a difficulty in terms of the financial capacity of families. So today, access to housing in Brussels is even more difficult than before, even if the housing crisis in Brussels is a situation that has been going on for several years."

“What is necessary is more social housing, rent control, and a better match between income and the cost of living," he says.

Written by Nick Amies