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February 2010

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Brussels identities from A to Z

At first sight, Jean-Pierre comes across like any friendly man in his fifties. You’d think a teacher at an arts academy, with a side job as a guide. But the tour he takes his public on, is one he knows only too well: the world of the homeless in Brussels. “Every day, more homeless people arrive in the city. Next to the capital of Belgium and of Europe, Brussels is also becoming the capital of misery.” With an average of fifty street deaths per year and 1,771 homeless persons according to an official count in February 2009, Brussels can indeed claim that ‘crown’.


obody is born homeless. Circumstances force you into it. I had been a civil servant for years, when I began to suffer from severe depression. One day I just stayed away from work. My colleagues put up posters: “disparu”. They thought I was dead... But I had gone to Paris, thinking to build up a new life there. After seven weeks of fruitlessly trying to find a job, I decided to return. I ended up on the street. People too often think that it’s drinking that forces people into a life on the street, but reality is more complicated than that. It’s other things that make you lose everything. It can happen to anyone. Sometimes I found a half-eaten sandwich, and finished it. But I never went rummaging through garbage cans. I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. Initially, I also avoided contact with other homeless people. I just couldn’t do it, I was too ashamed. But in the end, I had to: only if you know where the services are, the soup kitchens and the night centres, can you learn to help yourself. Only more experienced fellow homeless people can teach you how to do that. As a Belgian I’m relatively privileged because I am entitled to support. But as a  sans-papier  you have nothing at all. That’s real suffering. As a homeless

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In praise of: During my guided tours, I always take people along to the Place du Jeu de Balle in the Marolles, a neighbourhood where many homeless and poor live. In the middle of the square there is a statue, covered with rusty keys. It symbolises the right to housing. Having a house key, for a homeless person, is the ultimate dream. A key to the place you call home.” Opération Thermos in the metro corridor of the Central Station: from November to April, every evening, volunteers distribute soup. You can’t imagine how much a person can look forward to that: a bowl of hot soup, and a chat. Polymnia, an organisation, that, five years ago, began the homeless tours of Brussels, in collaboration with the homeless themselves. Art historian Sonja was so touched by the growing poverty she witnessed in Brussels, that she took up contact with the homeless and decided to set up a guided tour. The aim being to make people aware, let them see that the homeless are human beings as well. When she first proposed to me to be a guide, I hesitated, but now I’m glad that I let her win me over.” –

person you also have to learn to play the “filou”, to express myself in Brussels vernacular. That means you have to play the nice guy, because that way you get better treatment, for instance at clothes distribution centres. I often used to sit in the metro corridor of Central Station – there, every day, thousands of people pass by on their way to work. I’ve noticed that people prefer to give food instead of money. I have never been given so many pies as when I lived on the street. People like to give you something sweet, but what you really need as a homeless person are fatty foods, so that you can withstand the cold. There is a lot of mistrust and competition among the homeless. What more could you expect: everyday is a struggle for survival. I’ve learned this when I was queuing up for food in the Central Station: the more experienced homeless put you to the test and when you don’t bare your teeth at them, they snap up your food. It’s the law of the strongest. Some even form part of a clan, with a strict chain of command. But there is solidarity too among the homeless. Once, a homeless person gave me one of his two sleeping bags. Those things you never forget. The world of the homeless is really a microcosm of society, with good people and bad people and everything in between. It’s not because you live on the street that you will suddenly turn into a thief – unless when you had that already in you, of course. There are some real mucky pups, perpetually drunk and pissing on everything. They ruin it for the others, who are generally tidy. In our group there was no leader, and there was mutual trust. Nobody was on drugs, that makes a big difference as well. Our group always tried to maintain a good relation with our fellow citizens, for instance, with the workers on the construction site where we stayed for a while: eventually the overseer left the toilet open for us, because he knew in doing so he did us a great favour and that we would always leave it clean. Or security people bringing sandwiches – that’s very heart-warming...

21/01/2010 10:50:18


Jean-Pierre at Place du Jeu de Balle in the Marolles. The statue symbolises the human right to a home

But sometimes things don’t turn out so well, like the time when, with a comrade, I found a good sleeping place in a car park – we were discreet and didn’t bother anyone. Until one day all our things disappeared – our presence obviously had bothered someone, who had seen to it that our sleeping place was cleaned. We lost everything. At a moment like that, you really lose heart. I slept alone for five months, at Place Sainte-Catherine, and in the metro – the cheapest hotel in Brussels! I slept during the daytime, because at night the metro closes and you have to go back on the street, in all weathers. It’s best not to sleep lying down, because then somebody will take your belongings. However, sleeping while sitting up is not comfortable, and gives you shaky legs. Living as a homeless person takes a definite toll on the body. Tuberculosis, scabies, diabetes, intestinal problems, rotten teeth: sooner or later, you will have to deal with all of it. Living on the street really breaks your body. Only two percent manage to come out of a homeless condition – and even then, in what state... After years on the street you will suffer memory loss. Some even have to re-learn how to speak.

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“After years on the street you will suffer memory loss. Some even have to re-learn how to speak”

And the risk of relapsing is always there, because life on the street really changes you: living again between four walls is hard. I myself have to watch my weight, because after all the hunger I suffered, I cannot resist any food. Put something in front of me and I’ll eat it. But my prospects are good. After 15 months on the street, I’m beginning to recover. I’ve ran into some good people, such as Sonja from Polymnia, the guiding organisation for which I now regularly work, and a priest who offered me a place to stay.    Interview by Veerle Devos & Kristof Dams Image by Veerle Devos

21/01/2010 10:50:19

Brussels identities from A to Z: Homeless  

At first sight, Jean-Pierre comes across like any friendly man in his fifties. You’d think a teacher at an arts academy, with a side job as...

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