For my English-speaking friends: a dear friend from Ohio asked me to talk about my projects in the streets of Brussels. She published my text under ‘The Kindness Project’.
I like that.
* Brussels is Love: about the how and why of my friendship with homeless people in the EU Capital *
My friendship with homeless people started on October 17, the ‘Worldwide day of Struggle Against Poverty and Social Exclusion’ (sic!). I went to the rally, and noticed the absence of homeless people. People who were camping on the streets told me they had been excluded from the event: the Police asked them to back off! That is where my inner rebel awoke, and finally found its energy again.
My first homeless friend told me he craved a hygiene kit, with soap, facial cream, tooth paste, shavers, as he felt bad about his looks and smells. Having no budget, I sent a few emails around, and within a week I gathered enough to make… 40 kits! A friend and I went to meet people in streets and railway stations. The response was amazing, people kept contacting me for donations, and very soon 300 hygiene packs were made, containing soap, shower gel, a tooth-brush and tooth paste, a wash cloth, nail clippers, handkerchiefs, shampoo, skin lotion, shavers, and an extra such as a perfume, after shave, or cosmetics for the ladies.
I quickly threw out ideas of ‘charity’ or ‘helping them out’. After all: who am I? Are they really waiting for ME to save them? In Belgium, there is no solution and once that has been accepted, comes room for the human face behind ‘the problem’. Our society has become rough, and might not be suitable for all. Krishnamurti said it: “Being perfectly adapted to a sick society is not necessarily a sign of mental health”. I met people on the street who are so tender-hearted, sensitive and open, no wonder they dropped out. There is no social system clever/human enough to save them: the institutions treat people in need like numbers, lets them wait for months for an allowance, sends them to shelters that are traumatizingly unhuman and/or that exploit them. Many told me that once on the street, it is hard to get out of it. It is mostly awe and respect that motivates me, not anybody can survive in such an unfriendly jungle. People on the street feel this, and return my respect tenfold. They are tired of the eternal condescending look of pity in the eyes of charity, and the patronizing and inefficient ways of social workers! As they know I am not there to change them, they are not afraid to talk about what is really going on. My projects are all about dignity, creativity and expression WITH the homeless.
It is important to understand that some people are so disappointed with society that they might not really want to go back into the machinery. I met people with all kinds of lifestyles: sleeping in a tent in the forest, squatting abandoned, mostly humid and rotten houses, sleeping in a spot with camera’s in order to feel safer.. It is amazing, the number of people who are scared to death of the emergency shelters the state offers!
After the Toiletries, come the Books, my second material tool. When I saw how happy books can make people, and how vital it is for some to read, I got the idea of a ‘Street Library’. Well, at first I wanted to offer the books as gifts, but my homeless friends said it was nicer to let them circulate, and share. And I loved the idea. So the next donations I am welcoming are… BOOKS! Comics, detectives, novels, poetry… in every language.
You know, soup and blankets, or what we call ‘veterinarian care’, keep them merely and temporarily alive and that is good. But what comes next? When do we allow them to have a face, a voice, a brain? And what about visibility? The looks in the eyes of people do change when they see that mutual respect is happening right there on the pavement, in the rain, on a piece of cardboard. Passers by stop, and might take a moment to think. Often they don’t know too well what to say. Some give us a smile, and a thumbs up. Some are plain obnoxious, while other people are kind but… maybe slightly intimidated.
See, giving money is neutral, giving a book says it all, whereas giving care products and cosmetics opened the door to a message, a suggestion: you are worthwhile taking care of yourself!