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The money in the mug: how one Swedish expat is helping Brussels' homeless
"If you take one step for human rights, thousands will follow." This is the saying Joakim Mansson Bengtsson lives by.
It was 4.00 in the morning and Bengtsson and his friends were walking through the streets of Stockholm. He began to feel anxious after seeing people bundled up on the pavements, sleeping and trying to stay warm every couple of blocks. "This cannot happen in my town," he thought.
Back in his hometown of Lund, he became aware of the same problem occurring on the streets. Every night, 75 to 80 Roma people would find themselves bundled up, trying to stay warm throughout the night, caught in the vicious cycle of poverty.
Bengtsson would walk past the people lying on the streets and give his spare change and an encouraging smile, but it did not feel like it was enough. He began a Facebook page and saw a growing interest in his community to help the homeless population, and soon started poking the municipality to do something about it too. The city council provided Bengtsson and the cause with enough money to open a shelter.
The whole community rallied together and the shelter was able to offer the Roma a place to sleep, eat, shower and receive advice on finding work. After four years, many have found jobs, and can afford their own places to live.
"There are families raising up from the poverty now. I see children going to school that couldn’t before,” Bengtsson says with excitement. "The parents can finally feed and clothe their children and not worry about their children's safety."
Now Bengtsson has moved to Brussels to work for MEP Soraya Post - and he is committed to the same cause. "Here it's not just adults, but children on the streets," he says.
He began talking with many of the Roma in Brussels to learn more about their situations. Adults with children said they did not receive much help from the local authorities.
"I could not just see it and let that happen," he says. "When I have the knowledge, the information and the language skills to communicate with them, then there’s no excuse for me to walk by and not do anything."
With the help of his MEP, he began contacting local Salvation Army branches and churches, asking for any kind of help, but they declined. Because his time in Brussels is limited, he had to think of something to at least provide a little bit of help.
Bengtsson spread the word about collecting donations of coats, hats, blankets and other items to help the homeless population fight off the bitter Belgium winter. Every couple of weeks, after receiving bags full of warm layers, he and his colleagues walk around the city and hand out the donations.
"It is still not enough," he says. To help homeless people rise above poverty, they need more than just warm clothes. He says the shelters in Brussels work on a night-by-night basis, never guaranteeing they will have a warm place to sleep the next day.
Bengtsson says people often look away when passing a homeless person - not because they do not care, but because they do not know what to do. "I have seen what the money in the mug goes to," he says. "I would strongly recommend to give your spare change when you can, because sadly, money is needed to survive."
After building friendships with Roma people in Lund and Brussels, Bengtsson has travelled back to their native Romania to meet their families. He has seen how the spare change has put families in school, provided sturdier roofs on houses and put food on the table.
Main photo: Siska Gremmelprez/Belga