Sleeping in the streets, having to lodge with friends or family members, looking for somewhere safe to stay for the children… The issue of homelessness has numerous aspects, many of which are somewhat neglected. To fight this phenomenon effectively, it is essential to have clear, reliable and comparable data.
So, for the second consecutive year, the King Baudouin Foundation provided support for research teams (from UCLouvain CIRTES and LUCAS KU Leuven) who set out at the end of 2021 to establish point-in-time counts on homelessness. Thanks to support from local government and in collaboration with numerous partners in the field, this inventory was able to take place in the cities of Charleroi and Namur, in the southern part of West Flanders and in the Vilvoorde area. The research provided new information.
In Belgium, as in the rest of Europe, homelessness is a major social challenge. Since 2020, the King Baudouin Foundation is mobilising, together with research teams, to give a vital boost to the organisation of repeated and uniform counts across the country that provide comparable data. Clear figures, which relate to the scale of the phenomenon as well as the profile of the target, are absolutely essential in order to develop effective policies to fight homelessness.
After the first inventory, conducted at the end of 2020 in the cities of Arlon,Liège and Ghent and the province of Limburg, a similar exercise was conducted at the end of 2021 in the cities of Charleroi and Namur, in the southern part of West Flanders and in the BraVio frontline care zone in the Vilvoorde area. For this second round of counts, the research teams, led by Professor Koen Hermans from LUCAS KU Leuven and Professor Martin Wagener of UCLouvain CIRTES , were able to count on the involvement and courage of local public services, as well as numerous associations, institutions and volunteers.
Who exactly are these homeless people? What is their profile? What are the less visible aspects of homelessness? Whilst it is difficult to compare the results – since in most of the places covered it was the first time such an exercise had been conducted – it is nevertheless possible to set out a number of general findings.
-In total, 3,847 homeless persons were enumerated in the areas covered by the research: 1,159 in Charleroi; 1,146 in Namur; 1,313 in the southern part of West Flanders (SWF) and 229 in the BraVio area of Vilvoorde. These figures are higher than had initially been estimated.
-Over a quarter (26%) of those counted were children. In Charleroi, 200 of the 1,159 homeless people counted were children. The figures for Namur were 272, for SWF 479 and 51 in the BraVio area. However, most of these children were not in the street.
-Homelessness is not a problem found only in cities. The homeless are also found in smaller towns, although the proportions are lower there (between 0.5 and 1 person per 1,000 inhabitants, compared with 6 per 1,000 inhabitants in cities).
-Sleeping in the street is a reality in Belgium. Although this is more of a problem in cities, this phenomenon occurs everywhere (Charleroi: 62 adults, 5 children; Namur: 86 adults; SWF: 16 adults, 1 child; BraVio: 10). Sleeping in unconventional places (tents, garages, squats etc.) is, for many, a daily reality (Charleroi: 222 adults, 9 children; Namur: 93 adults, 11 children; SWF: 62 adults, 16 children; BraVio: 37 adults, 4 children).
-The people counted in public spaces, in emergency (night and other) shelters and other housing (care homes or temporary housing etc.) represented only around one third of all of the people counted. This confirms the existence of the ‘hidden’ homelessness: these are mainly those who are obliged to stay with friends or family members – a phenomenon that affects women and children above all.
-The people we see in public spaces therefore represent only the tip of the iceberg.
-Between roughly 30% and 35% of the total number of people enumerated were women. Women mainly spend the night in temporary accomodation for the homeless, with family members or with friends. They are thus de facto less visible. They often experience shorter periods of homelessness than men. The reason for their situation is most often linked to domestic violence or relationship problems.
-Children stay mainly in care homes, temporary housing or live temporarily with friends. Even if they are not in the street, they are nevertheless living a very unstable life.
-The point-in-time counts conducted at the end of 2020 had already shown that approximately 20% of those living rough were young adults. Conflicts with parents or other members of the family were the most frequent among this group. 40% - 50% of these youngsters stayed with friends or family members. A similar picture emerged in 2021.
-A rather large proportion (between 20% and 40%) of homeless people is composed of people with an immigrant background. The high proportion of people with a precarious residence status was also striking, especially in the cities.
-Roughly one in four of the homeless had an institutional past. Periods spent in a psychiatric institution came first, followed by prison and youth support. The link between homelessness and health problems is of a similar order: mental health problems and drug abuse are striking (and vary between 20% and 30% of the people enumerated). Only a minority of the homeless had no health problem.
Detailed facts and figures relating to the inventories conducted in each town and region can be found on https://www.kbs-frb.be/fr/denombrement-sans-abrisme-et-absence-de-chez-soi
The cities and areas covered by the research can already use the data available to make adjustments to their local policy for fighting homelessness.
The King Baudouin Foundation, together with researchers, will continue to conduct such inventories of homelessness at the end of 2022, working together with new partners in the German-speaking Community, Wallonia and Flanders. The Flemish Government will finance the organisation of new inventories in seven new areas. The Walloon Government has formally agreed, as part of its recovery plan, to give financial support to point-in-time counts that lead to pilot programmes in tackling homelessness.
With these new counts, we will be taking a next step in the organisation of repeated and uniform inventories of homelessness in Belgium and hoping, therefore, to be contributing to the development of effective policies to fight homelessness.