Statistics reveal that the number of homeless people is on the increase in almost every country of Europe. In Belgium we currently lack clear and comparable data about this phenomenon and yet these are essential in order to develop effective strategies against homelessness. The King Baudouin Foundation and researchers from LUCAS KULeuven and ULiège have been able to count on the support of numerous partners to conduct the first enumerations of homeless people in the cities of Arlon, Liege and Ghent, as well as in the province of Limburg. To these data can be added figures for the Brussels-Capital Region and the town of Leuven, where similar exercises were conducted on their own initiative.
So, who are these homeless people? What is their profile and what are the less visible aspects of this phenomenon? To provide answers to such questions – and many others – the King Baudouin Foundation and researchers (Prof. Dr. Koen Hermans from LUCAS KULeuven and Patrick Italiano from ULiège) worked together with the Service for Combatting Poverty, Deprivation and Social Exclusion, as well as local government bodies in order to give momentum to organising new counts of the homeless. On 29 and 30 October, 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, some 120 organisations completed a census of homeless people in the cities of Arlon, Liege and Ghent and in the province of Limburg.
To these data can be added those from the city of Leuven, which carried out an identical count in February 2020, and those from the Brussels-Capital Region, which had been making a similar count since 2008. On 9 November 2020, the Bruss’help organisation carried out its bi-annual census, in collaboration with 76 health and social services organisations, 15 CPAS and over 230 volunteers. This approach in Brussels enables long-term developments and trends to be followed.
There were differences in the methodologies used and the people identified. In most cities, this was a first-time experience, which was furthermore impacted by measures taken to fight Covid-19. The results are thus difficult to compare. Only when such censuses are uniform and repeated will the data be comparable long-term and across the country.
Nevertheless, a number of general observations can be made:
- The experience in Brussels showed an increase of 27.72% in the total number of homeless persons in the capital, compared with those counted in 2018.
The phenomenon of homelessness it therefore affecting more people, a trend that is also seen at European level.
- Sleeping in the street is a reality in Belgium. Even though this is more of a problem in the larger cities, it is a reality that is present everywhere. Sleeping in unconventional places (tents, garages, squats etc.) is, for many, a daily reality.
- The counts conducted in Arlon, Liege, Ghent and the province of Limburg revealed ‘hidden’ homelessness of people who were obliged to stay temporarily with friends or other family members. The homelessness we see in the public spaces is thus only the tip of an iceberg.
- Homelessness is not just a problem for major cities. The homeless are also to be found in smaller cities and towns.
- Since 2014, there has been an increasing tendency for homelessness to be scattered across the Brussels-Capital Region, with homeless people moving from the city centre and in and around the three main train stations to the various communes of Brussels.
- Another worrying observation is the high number of homeless children. In the major cities, children are spending the night in the street or in unconventional places. Numerous children are also to be found in ‘non-visible’ situations of homelessness. Moreover, it was striking to observe the high proportion (+/- 1/5 ) of young adults (aged 18-25) in this situation among those recorded as homeless.
- Some of the people concerned had spent time in an institution (e.g. in child/youth care, prison or a mental institution). The link between homelessness and health problems is similar, with problems of mental health and drug addiction being significant.
- A large number of those counted had been in a situation of homelessness for over one year.
- The target group likely to benefit from ‘Housing First’ support (an innovative approach in which access to housing for homeless people is the first step in their social re-integration) was identified everywhere.
The cities covered by this research can already make use of the data to adjust their local policy for fighting homelessness and lack of shelter. This is already the case for the Brussels-Capital Region and the city of Leuven, which have drawn up plans to fight homelessness.
The Brussels-Capital Region conducts a homelessness census every other year. For its part, the King Baudouin Foundation will follow up this first count, together with the researchers, by further work
(in October 2021) with new collaborators in four more towns/regions in Wallonia and Flanders. We are heartened to experience great support for this work, on the one hand based on our experience to date, and on the other hand by spontaneous requests to work with new towns and cities.
The results of the homelessness counts conducted to date and those in the future can be found on the website of the King Baudouin Foundation www.kbs-frb.be, as well as on www.combatpoverty.be, the website of the Service for Combatting Poverty, Deprivation and Social Exclusion, which is the body responsible for collecting data about homeless.