Brussels is a wonderful unique city to be living in during the run up to Christmas. It has wonderful Christmas markets, live music and with the recent downfall of snow, a real feeling of Christmas cheer. Recently however, I had a sobering experience that made me reflect on the nature of societal divisions within Brussels in stark contrast to the Christmas cheer that I have been enjoying in the last few weeks.
Let me paint you a picture. Last Saturday I had spent the whole day walking in the Ardennes (south Belgium); I came back to Brussels to watch Arsenal demolish Hull (3-0) before meeting up with a Spanish friend of mine to celebrate his birthday. Despite the bitter weather (-9 in the city centre), lots of friends made it out to celebrate. Being typically Spanish my friend had arranged to meet at 22:30, and the party lasted until the early hours. I had a really fantastic evening. Walking home (in bitter winds and heavy snowfall), I came across a group of homeless people who were lying on the street side exposed to the elements. How I reacted to this situation reflects a lot on how we as a society view homelessness.
I stopped, and stared and the pure injustice of a collection of men lying in sub-zero temperatures with nothing more than a blanket to warm them hit me hard. It repulsed me to see that this could be happening in a modern European city. I felt myself shivering with the cold (wearing a ski coat, hats, gloves etc). In my slightly inebriated state I stood still for well over 2 minutes to think what I could possibly do in this situation. The sad truth dawned on me that right there, in that drunken moment; there was absolutely nothing I could do. One gentleman lying on the ground spotted me and struck up conversation. In my French (which improves dramatically after many beers…I think) we talked briefly about how terrible the weather was. He seemed surprisingly jolly about the whole situation. Despite his optimism, he was visually shaking. I strongly suspected that his optimism was fundamentally based on a cocktail of drink and drugs to get him through that freezing night.
As I walked away, I felt more for that chap than any sober person could. My heart bled for the pure injustice of the whole situation. As I walked, my sorrow and sadness slowly evolved into a massive sense of anger at a system that allows for this situation to exist. Reflecting on these thoughts the next day (in a clearer state of mind), I vowed to myself that I would work to do something about this. In the UK, this would be easier (no language barriers). I am aware of organisations like Emmaus and Shelter working for homeless people. In Bath (where I lived for a number of years) I am aware of the hostel Julian House that provides nightly food and shelter for the homeless. In Brussels however I felt flummoxed about what I could do. Trying to help individuals only goes so far, it does not tackle the underlying reasons for the homelessness. For every bowl of soup you hand out another person slips into destitution.
This is not to say that handing out hot food is not beneficial. Indeed, it can often be a life line. It is however, fundamentally wrong that it is left to individuals and charities to try and provide support for those who have slipped through the state safety nets.
Homelessness is not a problem in itself. It is largely a symptom of other ills in society. Some of the main causes of homelessness include mental health issues, substance abuse, unemployment, prison release and forced eviction. The situation that I experienced on the streets of Brussels is reflective of our inability to tackle these underlying issues.
These issues need to be tackled at a national level, with effective planning. Until this happens, what can we do? Is there anybody reading this that can offer me advice? Is there really nothing more I can do other than hand out soup and look sympathetic?