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Support structures swing into action to help homeless as temperatures plummet

20120201 - BRUSSELS, BELGIUM: Illustration picture shows two homeless men receiving hot food from volunteers on the streets of Brussels. (BELGA PHOTO KRISTOF VAN ACCOM)
10:19 10/02/2021

As temperatures drop to below -10°C at night across Belgium, those who sleep on the country’s streets are in increased danger of freezing to death. In an attempt to get as many homeless people as possible into shelters, non-profit organisations, charities, and regional governments are working together to find solutions as the arctic snap continues.

Alain Maron, ‎the minister responsible for health and social action in the Brussels-Capital Region‎ government, announced on Monday evening that the number of places for homeless people in winter shelters had grown by 247 in recent days. The total number of places now stands at 3,400, a record.

Earlier, Maron and federal minister Georges Gilkinet announced that the three largest train stations in the capital would remain open to act as shelters. This was the case on Monday night but the Maron cabinet then stated on Tuesday that due to negotiations with national rail operator SNCB, this could change. However, it was confirmed that at least Brussels-Midi would remain open to the homeless at night while temperatures remained life-threatening.

The SNCB has been keeping main stations open for homeless people in other cities for years. Other stations that remain open all night are Antwerp Central, Ghent-Saint-Pierre, Liège-Guillemins and Charleroi.

"We're obviously not going to put people out on the street in such temperatures,” said a spokesperson for the Maron cabinet. “First, our field officers will contact recognised associations so that they can take care of the individuals in question. If this is not possible, they could be sent to one of the five major stations in the country. In Brussels, it will be the Gare du Midi."  Anyone who goes to the other two major Brussels train stations will be escorted by agents from Securail to Midi, the spokesperson revealed.

Meanwhile, the Brussels public transport operator Stib was reportedly looking into ways to provide extra shelter for the homeless at metro stations across the city.

One initiative that has already begun is to open the Botanique metro station all night from Tuesday evening. Volunteers from Bruss'Help, the organisation that coordinates assistance for the homeless in the region, are on hand at the station to hand out blankets and to provide homeless people with hot soup. "For the time being, because of location and safety regulations, we only make this one station available," said a Stib spokesperson.

Elsewhere, the mayor of Etterbeek, Vincent De Wolf, has taken special measures to protect the homeless between 20.00 and 7.00. These measures can go as far as the administrative arrest of those who refuse a warm shelter, despite their state of health.

Under the police order issued by the mayor, any homeless person present in the territory of Etterbeek is obliged to find shelter within the system operated by the commune. If refused, the homeless person may be taken there regardless of their consent.

In effect until at least 15 February, the order stipulates that as soon as a person is taken into care, a doctor must assess the health status of the homeless person and the risk to their safety if, due to the weather conditions at the time, he returns outside. Unless the doctor agrees, the homeless person must be detained at the shelter until the next morning.

According to Vincent De Wolf, this exceptional measure was ordered "because of the certain risk, caused by the current climatic conditions, on the safety of the homeless. Night temperatures which have been dropping to below -10°C over the last few days greatly increase the risk of hypothermia and death."

De Wolf defends the order by saying that it is the responsibility of the mayor of a commune and the police services to ensure public safety and to assist anyone in danger.

The authorities in Etterbeek have also collaborated with social care organisation CPAS to set up an emergency shelter in the commune. This centre is equipped with toilets and complies to all health and social distancing regulations related to the current coronavirus crisis.

In Wallonia, there have been similar calls for the mobilisation of train stations and hotels to protect the homeless from the cold snap. "The cold weather plan has been activated and municipalities have already taken local initiatives, but in the face of the emergency, we need to move to the next level," said Walloon MP Alda Greoli.

"Just like in Brussels, we need to mobilise the stations, and not just in the big cities,” she said. “Hotels can also be used, with compensation from the regional authorities."

"This mobilisation of stations could be discussed in a consultation committee, but it can also be the result of an initiative of the Region, as the Brussels government has done," added Greoli, who plans to bring up the issue with the Walloon social action minister Christie Morreale at the plenary session of the Walloon parliament scheduled for Wednesday.

The rush to find places for the homeless across Belgium comes at a time, not only of plummeting temperatures, but of increased numbers of people living on the streets. François Bertrand, director of Bruss'Help, stated that the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has led to the increase.

The pandemic has already put a great strain on the country’s shelters and the cold weather, despite the best efforts of the authorities, is pushing many to breaking point with almost all the beds available in the existing shelters occupied.

"In mid-November we opened three new hostels with a total of 120 beds,” Bertrand said. “There are currently about 50 places left. But these are reserved for the most vulnerable: in Schaerbeek for women, in Vorst and Anderlecht for homeless people with physical or mental health problems."

In January, one of two hostels reserved for homeless Covid-19 patients was transformed into an 'ordinary' shelter, with a further 98 places. "There are still a few beds available there," added Bertrand. "In the remaining Covid-19 centre, approximately 50 of the 100 available beds are occupied by homeless people who have tested positive for the coronavirus or are in quarantine awaiting their test result."

Doctors of the World estimated the shortage of shelters at 800 in November. In response, extra beds were made available in four additional hostels, but the almost full reception centres show that the need is still greater than the current capacity can handle. The results of the latest homeless census are expected by the end of February.

The Brussels government allocated €20 million last year to expand day and night care for homeless people in the region. In addition, the government also focuses on finding real housing solutions for homeless people through the Housing First principle. Structural housing solutions will be allocated €5.75 million in funding this year.

Written by Nick Amies