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Clean break: New centre serves hope to Brussels homeless

11:54 10/12/2017
A newly opened centre for homeless people offers showers, lockers, washing machines – and a chance to rejoin society

Whoever we are, we should all have the right to be clean. That’s the ethos behind a new centre for homeless people that has just opened in Brussels, offering showers, lockers, washing machines – and a chance to rejoin mainstream society.

It’s the brainchild of DoucheFlux, a non-profit organisation that was set up in 2011 to support homeless people and those living in poverty, by providing activities and administrative services. The organisation’s long-term goal was to open its own centre where people without access to affordable facilities could come and wash up, socialise and find the services they needed in a respectful and supportive environment.

The new centre is a few minutes’ walk from Brussels South railway station, a spot where many of the region’s estimated 2,700 long-term homeless people congregate. The organisers, however, hope to reach people throughout the city.

The new centre fills a need for services that simply didn’t exist until now, according to co-founder and president Laurent d’Ursel. “There are lots of places in Brussels where people can eat for free, but there was nowhere for them to wash. And that’s really important,” he says. “By letting our visitors get clean and wash their clothes, we’re giving them a more positive self-image and more self-confidence. That’s the key to finding your way back into society.”

Fresh look

DoucheFlux offers 20 showers, a launderette and 150 lockers of varying sizes, available to users for a couple of euros. They can also spend time in the coffee corner where drinks are 20 cents.

And it’s about much more than getting clean and keeping your belongings safe. Volunteers look after visitors’ wellbeing with haircuts, beauty treatments and yoga sessions, for a nominal fee, and users will be encouraged to share their opinions on the service at regular meetings. There’s also a computer in the centre for anyone to use.

As well as providing information on financial and administrative matters, the centre’s user-friendly website directs people to the services they need, be it a bed for the night, a hot meal or a place where they can join in activities or look for work. A health worker is available on site to carry out medical and psycho-social assessments.

“There are so many social services in Brussels, but they are spread out and not always aware of what the others are doing,” explains d’Ursel. “On our website, anyone can see what’s available to them based on their own needs.”

The building is spread across a number of floors, but the organisation has done everything it can to make it accessible to those with disabilities. The driving force behind that aim was Jacques Petit, one of the centre’s most enthusiastic volunteers, who is also a wheelchair user and was once homeless.

For technical reasons, it wasn’t possible to install a lift, but the ground floor has an adapted toilet and enlarged doorways. A special chair from Brussels-based mobility company Almagic allows wheelchair users to be transported downstairs to an adapted shower area.

The chair is currently rented, but the hope is to buy one for the centre; Petit will be at the forefront of fundraising efforts.

Filling the void

The distinctive lockers and other furniture at DoucheFlux, meanwhile, were created by ResourceLab, a Turnhout-based company that makes customised objects from reclaimed wood. Their furniture is handmade by members of non-profits, co-operatives and charities.

The DoucheFlux centre can trace its origins back to a series of protests in Brussels in 2010, when a collective called Manifestement took to the streets demanding that politicians provide better support and more affordable services for those without a fixed address.

Dozens of public buildings in the city were standing empty, but there was a lack of public and political will to convert them for the homeless. The building on Veeartsstraat in Anderlecht had been empty and unused for 10 years before DoucheFlux bought it in 2014.

Renovation started in November the following year and is now complete. The building has been open to the public since the end of March, though some of the services are not yet available.

Back in control

All told, the investment amounts to €2 million, which came from a combination of donations and fundraising. “Since the beginning, we have been able to cover our operating expenses primarily through donations from individuals,” explains spokesperson Danielle Borremans.

In recent years, she continues, “these donations have been complemented by all sorts of fundraising activities, organised by us or on the initiative of others. The support and kindness we have felt from all layers in society have been heart-warming and motivating.”

But the challenge, she says, “is still considerable, today, tomorrow and the day after. There is a lot at stake. To quote Angela Merkel: When it comes to human dignity, we cannot compromise.”

In an effort to address the isolation of people living on the street, DoucheFlux has always organised regular events to help them learn new skills, meet other people, regain their self-confidence and start working their way back into mainstream life.

Among their outreach events is the DoucheFlux Meets Schools programme, in which secondary schools invite homeless speakers to take part in discussions with pupils. The idea is to help students address societal prejudices and explore issues of poverty and exclusion.

There is also a multilingual magazine featuring articles written by people who have lived on the street. Vendors buy copies for €0.25 and sell them on to the public for €2 each, giving them access to a legal income as well as a meaningful occupation.

Spreading the word

A radio show is broadcast once a month, covering issues related to poverty, though it’s currently only available in French. “We offer services and activities to people that give them with energy, self-confidence and skills,” says Chris Aertsen, another one of the organisation’s founders. “We give people back their autonomy.”

The aim, she adds, is to “give people the freedom to make their own way. We believe in independence, co-operation, diversity, respect and transparency, and in making people’s voices heard.”

Even before it’s fully operational, there has been a positive response from people using the centre, who appreciate the high-quality surroundings and the welcoming atmosphere. DoucheFlux is spreading the word through flyers, mailings and other associations in the sector.

The centre is staffed primarily by volunteers. In order to provide a stable and efficient service in the new building, however, DoucheFlux had to hire permanent staff to work alongside them.

In the past month, the permanent workforce has increased from one to five people: an administrative and financial officer, a social assistant, a volunteer co-ordinator, a receptionist and a logistical and technical co-ordinator.

‘A beautiful thing’

Access to the DoucheFlux building is only possible from Tuesday to Friday during office hours, and from 11.30 to 15.00 on Saturdays. In the start-up phase, access to the showers and launderette will be limited to mornings from Tuesday to Friday, and 11.30 until 14.30 on Saturday.

At a later stage, when the building becomes fully operational, the intention is to provide a second session of access to showers and the launderette in the late afternoon.

Pascal Smet, the Brussels minister whose portfolio includes poverty issues, was one of the politicians present at the launch event. “Every day as I cycle or walk in the city, I see something I can’t accept: men and women living in the street,” he says. “It’s something that’s become part of normal life, part of modern society, but every time I see it, it makes my heart ache. No one who truly had the choice would choose to live in the street.”

A great number of people have spent a lot of time and energy to make the DoucheFlux project a reality, he explains. “What they’ve done, I think, is one of the most beautiful things a person can do: make another person happy.”

Photo: Julie de Bellaing

Written by Sally Tipper