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New census shows homelessness up 27% in two years

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM: Illustration picture shows homeless people in the tunnel between the subway station and the train station in Brussels Central Station. (BELGA PHOTO SISKA GREMMELPREZ)
09:57 18/03/2021

The number of homeless people in Brussels, including children and young people as well as adults, has increased by 27.72% over the last two years but, according to an initial national census released on Wednesday, the problem of homelessness is not unique to Belgium’s large cities.

In the Brussels region, 4,380 adults and 933 children – compared to just over 600 in 2018 – are homeless. In Ghent, 1,472 adults and 401 children are affected, compared to 422 adults and 78 children in Liège, 932 adults and 285 children in Limburg province, and 149 adults and 69 children in Arlon.

Over a period of 12 years, the increase is even more striking: in 2020, three times as many homeless people were counted than in 2008, the first year in which the census was carried out.

This year’s census was carried out on behalf of the King Baudouin Foundation at the end of October by researchers from LUCAS KULeuven and ULiège and some 120 organisations in the cities of Arlon, Liège, Ghent and the province of Limburg.

The city of Leuven also conducted an identical count in February 2020. For the Brussels-Capital Region, Bruss'help organised its biannual count on 9 November, in collaboration with 76 health and social organisations, 15 ‎public centres for social action‎ (CPAS) and more than 230 volunteers.

According to Caroline George, project coordinator at the King Baudouin Foundation, the rise in children being homeless is directly related to their parents' situation. “The proportion of children varies from 15 to 30% depending on the city, but fortunately we see very few children sleeping on the streets," she said. "Most are housed in shelters, which shows that solutions are given to them. Many are in situations of so-called ‘hidden homelessness’ such as staying with relatives."

George also noted that in the homeless population,"18-25-year-olds exceed 20%, which means that the stereotype of the old man around the corner no longer corresponds to reality.”

“Our initial data is in line with developments documented in international reports, namely that homelessness is getting younger, that there is a feminisation of the problem, and that there are more families,” she added. “There are also more homeless people with a migratory past, but with large variations depending on the city. In Ghent, we have up to 57% of people who are unregistered with the authorities."

The new census shows that women make up about 30% of homeless people. The number of women counted rose in absolute numbers to 1,100. Women are rarely on the street, but often in emergency shelters or squats.

The long-standing links between homelessness and mental health problems, substance abuse, or a history in psychiatry or prison persist. A significant proportion of those surveyed have also been homeless for more than a year.

Within the overall increase, some trends stand out. For example, there was a slight decrease in the number of people living on the street: that dropped from 759 to 719. On the other hand, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people in emergency or crisis shelters. That doubled to 1,430 people. The increase in the number of people in squats is also remarkable: 999 people were recorded as doing so, an increase of 70 percent compared to 2018.

The non-profit social help organisation Bruss'help believes that the coronavirus crisis has played a role in more people being recorded as living in squats due to the increased outreach work of health professionals. "Without a doubt, the established bonds of trust with all these social and health workers have made it possible to count a whole range of people who used to remain invisible," the NGO said in a statement. At the same time, Bruss'help suspects that more people are actually living in squats, as a result of the economic and health crisis.

The new figures could suggest that Brussels' homeless policy is, overall, failing but this is a conclusion Frank Vanbiervliet of Bruss'help rejects. “On the basis of these figures, you can't really judge that," he said. "In addition, the Brussels government has freed up a record amount of funding for homeless shelters. And the figures also show that three out of five people we counted were indeed taken care of, often in emergency shelters. I don't think that's a bad score for a minister. However, these figures do not yet say anything about the quality of these homes."

Bruss'help also made some recommendations in the wake of the new figures. For example, the organisation has asked the government to formulate a ‘masterplan’ to end and prevent homelessness. "More attention needs to be paid to prevention," says Vanbiervliet. "Once someone is homeless, it immediately becomes much more difficult."

The organisation is also asking the government to cut rents. In addition, Bruss'help also advocates more residence permits and a regularisation of undocumented people, who are much more likely to drift into homelessness.

Ministers across the political spectrum offered their own opinions on the new figures with the Workers' Party of Belgium (PTB/PVDA) calling for an enforceable rental schedule to keep rising rents in check and an acceleration of the ‘Housing First’ policy which helps homeless people find modest homes and then provides support.

"House prices in Brussels have risen 20% faster than the cost of living over the past 15 years, but wages have not risen in line with that at all," said PTB/PVDA minister Jan Busselen. "This is a huge burden on the budget of Brussels families."

Regarding Housing First, the government wants to increase the number of homes in that category to 500 by the end of the legislature, but that is not enough, according to the PTB/PVDA. "At this rate, there will be enough homes for homeless people in the year 2094," said Busselen.

Green politician Juan Benjumea Moreno, who took part in the census as a volunteer, believes the expansion to 500 homes should only be a first step. He referred to the example of Helsinki, which managed to create 3,500 of these homes.

Alain Maron, the Brussels minister responsible for social action and health, has previously stated that the problem at Housing First is not so much the budget, but the number of adapted, small and affordable homes on the market. In response to the new findings, he reiterated that the government wants to do more work on Housing First.

"We are making every effort to move from the logic of providing emergency shelter to a logic of creating sustainable housing, because projects such as Housing First have already shown that homeless people can more easily solve the problems that have caused their homelessness if they have a home," Maron said. "By 2024, we want to quadruple funding for Housing First."

Benjumea praised the extra capacity in emergency shelters that Maron created, but at the same time claimed that Brussels now acts as a solution for the other Belgian cities who have a homeless problem: "Other cities need to provide more shelter and housing. There are too many stories from people who hear from the Public Centre for Social Welfare ‘Go to Brussels, that's where they're going to help you’."

Benjumea also called for more action to be taken regarding empty properties. "In recent years, too little has been done with this, except for some tolerance policy for squats. That's not a structural solution."

The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) also called for more effort regarding Housing First. "The high figure we see today is the sad result of a failed homeless policy," said N-VA politician Gilles Verstraeten. "The government must now make extra effort to prevent homelessness and support projects such as Housing First that will once again give homeless people permanent accommodation."

N-VA is also pushing for a separate category for undocumented homeless people. "One homeless person is not yet the other," Verstraeten says. "By definition, we cannot structurally help someone without valid residence papers, but we need to move towards federal migration and asylum procedures. If we fail to do so, their numbers in the homeless population will continue to rise."

Written by Nick Amies