#1 A strategy to end homelessness in Brussels

Filip Keymeulen, Andrea Rea, Elisabetta Rosa and Mauro Striano

Translation: Jane Corrigan

2020 census of homeless people in Brussels coordinated by Bruss'help
© Chloé Thôme / Bruss’help – 2020 census of homeless people in Brussels coordinated by Bruss’help.

Une stratégie pour mettre fin au sans-abrisme à Bruxelles

Strategie om de strijd aan te binden tegen dakloosheid in Brussel

The BSI Position Papers reflect the opinions, thoughts and recommendations of the authors, and are not attributable in any way to Brussels Studies and the Brussels Studies Institute (BSI). The authors assume full responsibility for them.

The number of homeless and inadequately housed people in Brussels continues to rise. The COVID-19 crisis has brought the issues of homeless women, irregularly resident foreigners and people suffering from mental health problems to the fore, acting as an emphatic reminder of the need for immediate, better adapted and more humane solutions and, above all, the urgent need to move out of an emergency situation.

During the last census conducted by Bruss’help on the evening of 9 November 20201, a total of 5 313 homeless or inadequately housed people were counted in the Brussels-Capital Region, 719 of whom were sleeping in the public space, 1 430 in emergency or crisis centres and 498 being housed by Plateforme Citoyenne. Compared to 2018, an additional 1 153 people (+27,7 %) were counted, all categories combined. There was a significant increase in the number of people accommodated in emergency centres (+102,3 %). Since the first census in 2008, the total number of people counted has slightly more than tripled. The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to this increase, in particular by worsening the conditions of the most precarious homeless people and migrants in transit who are blocked by the closure of borders. Behind these figures lies a variety of profiles, needs and pathways which require individualised support and adapted solutions.

In recent years, regional policy has favoured an emergency approach to homelessness.2 The figures for the 2008-2020 period show a substantial increase in the number of places in emergency accommodation centres and a stagnation in the capacity of integration structures such as Housing First projects, which combine access to housing and support.3 At the end of 2019, the Brussels Minister for Social Action, Alain Maron, presented the main lines of the 2020 strategic plan. Characterised by a break with the previous regional policy, the overall aim of the plan is to overcome homelessness in a lasting way. Specific objectives include, among others, combatting the loss of housing, rehousing with extended individual support – including Housing First – supporting innovative projects and reinforcing guidance services and shelters.4 The COVID-19 pandemic and its public management have blocked these dynamics.

Social innovation prompted by the crisis

The public management of homelessness during the pandemic has involved many challenges: disruption in the continuity of public services, failure to care for people in the streets when a curfew is imposed and lack of access to essential resources and services (water, toilets, etc.). However, additional funds have been made available by the public authorities and new emergency accommodation schemes have been tested. In addition, a strong mobilisation and collaboration between stakeholders dealing with homelessness has allowed social innovations to be explored. Although they have emerged as a response to the health crisis, they present many advantages. We are therefore advocating that they should be continued in the long term.

These schemes include accommodation in hotel structures run by associations for the homeless, CPASs (Forest) and municipalities (Anderlecht and Saint-Gilles). Although it is a crisis solution, it offers better quality accommodation than traditional dormitories. Hotel structures have made it possible to provide continuous, 24-hour accommodation, larger units with single, double or shared rooms with a limited number of people, private bathrooms and on-site social support. Compared to traditional emergency facilities, a hotel structure is a solution which guarantees privacy, comfort, an increased sense of security and psychological and physical well-being and, finally, a form of autonomy. This solution provides users with a fundamental respite, as it offers the opportunity to rest and regain energy.

In addition, stability provides the opportunity to address the most disparate medical, administrative and family needs, among others. People who stay in hotels managed by the municipalities or CPASs have easier access to administrative procedures, as well as to temporary accommodation and other services. Furthermore, the involvement of stakeholders such as municipalities and CPASs, as well as the discretionary authority of social workers, has shown local authorities a new way of dealing with homelessness, which is no longer focused on nuisance reduction, but rather on social inclusion. In addition, the hotel projects have strengthened and created new partnerships, encouraging stakeholders unused to cooperating, exchanging practices and adopting holistic solutions.

The use of hotel structures has become a quality emergency solution while offering a response to specific needs, which was structurally absent before. According to Bruss’help data, 300 of the 401 adults staying in the hotels are women (75 %), who generally represent 20 % of the homeless and inadequately housed population surveyed since 2008. As studies have indicated, when faced with homelessness, women often resort to informal mechanisms rather than seeking social assistance.5 Due to factors such as the risk of gender-based violence or the fear that their children will be taken away from them by child protection services, women are more likely to seek alternatives to homelessness services – for example, by resorting to “couch-surfing” or staying with family or friends6 – thus falling into the category of “hidden homelessness”. During the health crisis, the limits of staying with friends and family has become evident. Furthermore, the number of women who are victims of domestic violence has risen sharply during this period. Several services have therefore implemented specific arrangements for women, strongly indicating the need for adequate solutions.

Although hotel structures are a quality solution, they also have some limitations. Living in a hotel imposes constraints such as an acceptance of community life, which is particularly difficult for people with serious mental health or addiction problems. For the most part, the workers in the hotel projects currently do not have adequate training to deal with these issues and have fixed-term employment contracts. Redirecting people to suitable facilities is sometimes difficult given the lack of room in these structures – an unfortunate consequence of the Brussels 107 reform,7 which has led to an increased number of people suffering from mental illness who can no longer be accommodated in psychiatric services. As regards irregularly resident foreigners, the hotels do not allow them to regularise their situation as they cannot take up residence there. There is a blatant lack of services for those without a residence permit. This demonstrates the need to continue to provide even temporary accommodation providing support and the possibility to take up residence. Whether it is for obtaining certain social rights, such as the social integration income, or for obtaining a residence permit, having a home – temporary or more long-term – offers the possibility to have an address.

Focusing on the structural causes as well

While the health crisis has had a considerable impact on the precariousness of people who are already vulnerable, it has also highlighted fundamental issues in the management of homelessness. On the one hand, the hotel projects have shown that it is possible to provide quality emergency services 24 hours a day. The possibility for emergency shelters to operate day and night has also demonstrated the advantages in terms of the administrative, medical and social follow-up of homeless people. On the other hand, it is clear that a long-term strategy must be based on a consideration of the needs and pathways of homeless people – always aimed at quality solutions (Housing First, occupancy agreements, temporary accommodation, shelters, emergency accommodation) – as well as on optimal working conditions for the support workers. The challenge is not only to provide a set of solutions which can meet different needs, but also to strengthen and optimise existing services which offer an opportunity for integration.

Beyond the sectoral perspective, it is fundamental to consider the “structural” causes of homelessness in Brussels. The first cause is the increased socio-economic precariousness of the Brussels population, which is faced with a lack of affordable housing. Like other European cities, Brussels could propose rent controls8 and a plan to reallocate office space which will become available if telework becomes a consolidated form of organisation in companies and public administrations. The second cause is the presence of a significant number of European or third-country nationals without residence permits among the homeless. While homeless services require additional resources in order to reinforce legal support and resolve some of these cases, it is imperative that structural solutions are also found at federal level.

For more information

KEYMEULEN Filip, 2021. De lockdown van maart 2020 bekeken vanuit het perspectief van een straathoekwerker. In: Integrale jeugdhulp, 01/2021, Cahier 15, pp. 49-61

QUITTELIER Benoit and HORVAT Nicolas, Homeless and inadequately housed people in the Brussels-Capital Region. In : Brussels Studies, Fact Sheets. No. 140. 04/11/2019. Available at: https://journals.openedition.org/brussels/3974

STRIANO Mauro, 2021. Le dénombrement des personnes sans abri et mal logées à Bruxelles. In: Le Combat Ordinaire. 11/05/2021. Available at: https://lecombatordinaire.home.blog/2021/05/11/le-denombrement-des-personnes-sans-abri-et-mal-logees-a-bruxelles/

STRIANO Mauro, 2020. Le logement au rythme des gens – Housing First à Bruxelles. In: Le Combat Ordinaire. 16/12/2020. Available at: https://lecombatordinaire.home.blog/2020/12/16/le-logement-au-rythme-des-gens-housing-first-a-bruxelles/

STRIANO Mauro, 2020. Bienvenue à l’Hôtel Solidaire. In: Le Combat Ordinaire. 19/08/2020. https://lecombatordinaire.home.blog/2020/08/19/bienvenue-a-lhotel-solidaire/

THÔME Chloé, À deux pas, Brussels podcast series on housing and confined jobs. Available at: https://open.spotify.com/show/7LfX9KrwKEaW5Tjoyd2vkj?si=W8ZLTZkCRQ6i35HxRb3UfA


Filip Keymeulen is both an outreach worker with street people for the non-profit organisation Diogenes and a lecturer at Odisee. He has written various opinion pieces. His debut novel, Alhambra, was published last year. The story introduces readers to several remarkable characters who inhabit the streets of Brussels.

Andrea Rea is a professor of sociology at Université Libre de Bruxelles and a member of GERME. He is the author of Sociologie de l’immigration (Paris: La Découverte, 2021) and co-editor of The Refugee Reception crisis in Europe. Polorized Opinions and Mobilizations (Brussels: EUB, 2019).

Elisabetta Rosa is a post-doctoral researcher at the LOCI Faculty of UCLouvain. Since 2017 she has been coordinating the research programme BRUMARG-Bruxelles à travers ses marges (Innoviris-Attract) and studies the living conditions of homeless people in Brussels, with a specific focus on women.

Mauro Striano has been an advisor mainly involved in research at Bruss’help since May 2020. Before working for Bruss’help, he was a mission head on migration issues for almost 10 years at the European Federation of National Associations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA).

To cite this post: KEYMEULEN Filip, REA Andrea, ROSA Elisabetta and STRIANO Mauro, 2021. A strategy to end homelessness in Brussels. In : BSI Position Papers. no 1. 14/06/2021. Available at: https://bsiposition.hypotheses.org/277

  1. HORVAT Nicolas and STRIANO Mauro, 2020. Dénombrement des personnes sans-abri et mal logées en région de Bruxelles-Capitale, Sixième édition, 9 novembre 2020. Brussels: Bruss’help. Available at: http://www.brusshelp.org/images/Denombrement2020_vdef.pdf []
  2. MALHERBE Alain, MORIAU Jacques, ROSA Elisabetta and WAGENER Martin, 2019. La problématique du sans-abrisme à Bruxelles – limite de la gouvernance multiniveau dans l’application du principe de justice spatiale. In: Justice spatiale/Spatial Justice. 13/10/2019 Available at: http://www.jssj.org []
  3. Housing First projects are aimed at homeless people who face a combination of social insecurity, mental health problems, addiction and physical ailments, offering low-cost individual housing and the possibility of psychological, medical and social support: https://housingfirsteurope.eu/fr/le-guide/. In Brussels: http://www.housingfirstbrussels.be/projet-housing-first/ []
  4. These guidelines were reaffirmed during a plenary session of the Joint Community Commission on 19 March 2021. []
  5. PLEACE Nicholas, 2016. Exclusion by Definition: The Underrepresentation of Women in European Homelessness Statistics. In: BRETHERTON Joanne and MAYOCK Paula (dir.), Women’s Homelessness in Europe. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Pp.105‑126 []
  6. FEANTSA, 2021. Guide for developing effective gender responsive support and solutions for women experiencing homelessness. Brussels: FEANTSA. Available at: https://www.feantsa.org/public/user/Resources/resources/Guide%20supporting%20and%20solutions%20for%20women.pdf []
  7. CONSEIL BRUXELLOIS DE COORDINATION SOCIOPOLITIQUE (CBCS), 2015. DOSSIER: Psy 107, la réforme. Et puis ? Available at: https://www.cbcs.be/DOSSIER-Psy-107-la-reforme-Et-puis []
  8. REY-LEFEBVRE Isabelle, 2021. Après Paris et Lille, plusieurs villes et intercommunalités réclament l’encadrement des loyers. In: Le Monde. 10/05/2021. Available at: https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2021/05/10/apres-paris-et-lille-l-encadrement-des-loyers-est-reclame-par-plusieurs-villes-et-intercommunalites_6079730_3234.html []

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bsipositionpapers (June 14, 2021). #1 A strategy to end homelessness in Brussels. BSI Position Papers. Retrieved July 20, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/m5aa

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