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Red Cross raises alarm about homeless amid plunging temperatures

20:42 13/12/2022

The Belgian Red Cross and other social organisations are sounding the alarm as temperatures drop across the country and homeless shelters remain at maximum capacity, leaving many to sleep on the streets.

The Red Cross is especially concerned about the forecast in the coming days, where temperatures could fall as low as -3°C in Brussels.

“I am very worried,” said André Rouffard, president of the Red Cross centre in Verviers. "There are African homeless people I haven't seen for days. I wonder what happened to them.

"I know that two were sleeping in a park and a third under a motorway bridge. I am also worried about many people who have been affected by last year's floods, because some have fallen into poverty. It's very worrying for all of our precarious population.”

Fatal floods in Belgium back in 2021 left many families in precarious situations from which they are still struggling to recover.

Even before the floods, the homeless population in the country has been growing: the number of homeless people has increased by 27% over the last three years.

The situation is particularly bad in Brussels, where there are more than 5,300 homeless people, including more than 900 children, according to figures from the King Baudouin Foundation.

Because it is considered the capital of Europe, many migrants go to Belgium to claim asylum in hopes of being able to find a better life within the EU. The Belgian migration system has been overrun in recent years, with the situation made worse by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and, more recently, the war in Ukraine.

The Red Cross is conducting outreach activities via 13 teams in Brussels, two in Mons and three in Charleroi, distributing meals to the homeless.

In Charleroi, an estimated 950 adults and 200 children are living on the streets, while in Namur about 870 adults and 270 children are homeless and in Liège the figures are 420 adults and almost 80 children.

The Red Cross centre in Couvin decided to open its soup kitchen a month early and transformed its premises into a reception area for homeless people every morning.

It also distributes resources such as blankets and sleeping bags, but the Belgian Red Cross says their supply of each is nearly exhausted.

“We are doing our best,” said Olivier Coppens, head of the Red Cross centre in Etterbeek.

“We distribute survival blankets, treat frostbite. All volunteers are trained to be even more vigilant than usual for signs of hypothermia.”

Red Cross volunteers are distributing about 1,300 meals each day at the main Brussels centre, but the need is also high in Wallonia. In Verviers, volunteers have seen an increase in requests for aid of about 10%.

Other aid organisations are pitching in, and between 40 and 60 beds have been installed in the indoor areas of the King Baudouin stadium, intended for the homeless.

These emergency accommodations will include heated rooms and showers.

The Bruss'help association, which offers aid for the homeless, has activated its “Cold Plan”, aiming to ensure that people in precarious situations are taken care of as the weather conditions get tougher.

In addition to the national stadium, aid organisations are calling on gymnasiums, railway stations and other public facilities to provide shelter for the most vulnerable people – families in particular – during times of great cold.

Bruss'help would like Gare du Nord and Gare du Midi to remain accessible day and night so that people can find shelter there, as has been done in the past.

Written by Helen Lyons