On dead homless persons and a blind government

dakloze_c_ivan_put_cmykWhat goes through you when trying to reach the cash point you stumble over a homeless person? “The first time you find it shocking, the second time disturbing, the third time annoying and then it becomes ordinary. You do not see them, you do not hear them, you even do not smell them any more” Bleri Lleshi argues that urgent structural measures are necessary to get the homeless off the streets.

As evening falls, starts the queuing for a bed in the bank offices here on the corner. Homeless, undocumented migrants, asylum seekers …

There are so many, and they are everywhere. When I started talking with some of these people, they tell me they are grateful for being able to sleep here during these winter days. It is evening also for the ordinary man who worked all day and now wants to do something.  At the restaurant, café, theater … but first: withdraw money.

It is a poignant image. The sound of the cash point, the chinking of the consumer society which sounds increasingly louder, sharply contrasts with the smell of the bodies that you first have to pass. The first time you find it shocking, the second time disturbing, the third time annoying and then it becomes ordinary. You do not see them, you do not hear them, and you even do not smell them any more because your nose has since built a protective mechanism. Problem solved. Well, for you and me.

On December 9, the third homeless, in three months time, was found dead under an escalator in Brussels. It has become a monthly ritual. And yet is this ritual being ignored by the people who could do something. The problem of homeless persons in Brussels worsens, while efforts or solutions are invisible. What they have undertaken is removing the homeless from subway stations and other public places where ordinary people (you and me), and especially the tourist must not be disturbed by such images. Not in Brussels, the heart of Europe.

The situation of the homeless is well known: social exclusion, poverty, psychological and social problems, illegality, alcohol and drug addiction, increased aggression, and the living conditions I do not have to tell much as those from Brussels confront it daily. Who passes in the train stations, sees enough. And yet we see only the tip of the iceberg because many asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, women and children are relegated to the most desolate places in the poorest areas of the city.

Human rights

Every year on December 10th is Human Rights Day. On December 10, 1948 the United Nations accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What universal rights and for whom, I often ask myself? Which human rights enjoy the homeless persons? This society denies any kind of rights to the homeless. These people are no longer considered as part of ‘our society’, they belong to the street. On the street they have no rights and the government does not feel called to take on responsibility for people without rights. Again, problem solved, in this case for the government.

I am well aware that in the current capitalist system – which generates inequality and exclusion – will always be homeless. Still I am sure we can do something. To do something you need resources, you need money. But we also need cooperation between different authorities and agencies. The Brussels region can play here an important role because it has jurisdiction to structural measures. The problems of homelessness are structural. Structural means factors and/or causes for which the individual has no or only limited control. How much control has a homeless person to improve his life, if his basic rights are not recognized?

One should stop with the ‘individual responsibility discourse’ and tackle structural problems such as the lack of social and affordable housing.

Empty buildings

The housing market should be more accessible for homeless people or people with low incomes. This can be done by raising the supply of social housing. One way to do this is by recovering the empty buildings in the city. Legally this is possible, but in seventeen years time, the mayors never applied the law. Because the law can only be applied if the government itself has no empty buildings, which is almost never the case.

Moreover, the government is required to make an inventory of all the empty buildings in its territory, before a procedure of claim can be started. If one wants to claim any of the more than fifteen thousand empty buildings in Brussels, then this dual requirement must be abolished.

We have already had the last few weeks a harsh winter, and the next days will be even colder. It is only then that homeless persons come into the news – while structural solutions and preventive actions are needed, rather than emergency interventions after the facts. The homeless are a part of society and it is in the society where they belong, not on the street. This is what should be addressed. Otherwise, the problem will be never solved.

Bleri Lleshi is  political philosopher

From : Brussel Deze Week 22-12-10

This is a translation from Dutch to English of the following column:


Picture: © Ivan Put





2 thoughts on “Ordinary rituals

  1. The federal government owns a large office building on avenue Louise. The building is overheated 24/7 because there is no control system, while most of the offices are vacant because they are old and antiquated and don’t attract tenants. Dozens of empty rooms maintained above 20° day and night, while homeless people are sleeping outdoors in subzero temperatures…

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