Helping the homeless: why nothing works (and yet everything helps)

(traduction française)

No, this is not just a rant!

After a seven month sacred fire, giving all my free time to the homeless people of Brussels, I had a little burnout. It was getting hard for me to see those men and women and listen to their stories. (In fact, most of them can not even stand each other, and most of them do not wish to be identified with the bunch of losers who are all sadder, crazier, drunker, dirtier than they would ever be!) Working with them for seven months was like pouring truckloads of love into pits that were getting deeper every day. Nothing was ever enough, or good enough. 

The more personal stories turned out to become the saddest: as soon as I got to know somebody better, they’d ask me to help them get out of the ‘infernal spiral’ they felt trapped in. And I did what I could. I made CV’s, found lawyers, prospected for potential jobs and apartments. I arranged for a father to meet his son after a decade of absence. And guess what? The closer they came to what appears to all of us to be a solution, the deeper they crawled back into their grots. They were very handy at losing phone numbers, forgetting appointments and becoming unreachable. And all they were left with was a feeling of guilt, self loathing and more despair. Refusing the solutions that were offered made them lose their last illusions forever.  

Harassment and threats, really?

One day, I had to call the Police. One of the guys who knew my home address came ringing at my doorbell late one evening. I admit I was scared sh*tless. I ran to a friend’s house to spend the evening, but when I came back hours later, he was still there, with hardly any voice left (from screaming?), surrounded by empty beercans and half asleep in front of my home. I asked him to leave, but he refused. So the Police took him away. When the next day I found threatening messages on my answer phone, I filed a complaint. I got stalked by phone for months.  

Then there was this girl. She had been panhandling in the snow a couple of winters ago. She was young and pretty and attracted lots of attention from people who were doing their Christmas shopping and from the media. She made us think of the Little Match Girl. She told everybody she had a very rare disease that cost her a lot of money, and that she had no home. On my way to work, I stopped many times to bring her clothes, coffee, beer and food. One day I asked her if I could take her picture for my blog. She said “Of course!”, and posed with pride. I brought her a printout with the dozens of reactions. People were even offering her a place to stay. A few months later, a women’s magazine called, asking if they could publish the picture with a short article. Sure, she would not mind. However, eight months after publication, my family got harassed per text messages:  they were claiming money for the picture and threatened us with imaginary but very fierce lawyers. When I called the number the messages came from, a young man answered the phone. I think she was not homeless, but forced by a boyfriend to beg for money during the snowy winter months.

I have been lied to, cheated upon and manipulated, that’s for sure. And I have tried to be a Love Angel that floats above the uglies of this world, shedding my love like magical glitter powder for them to heal. But they did not heal. They said what they thought I wanted to hear: “I want to get out of here, can you help me find an apartment, a job, a lawyer?”, so I would invest my energy into what they did not feel like doing. Surprisingly, finding solutions was not even that hard. But as soon as an appointment was made, a job promised, a room found, they vanished. 

Why don’t you just help them find a permanent solution?

Many times people asked me: “Why do you bring stuff such as toiletries, you’d better help them find permanent solutions! Take them to social services, help them find a job, get them a place to live!”. It makes sense, doesn’t it? I believed it for a while too. But now my answer is that this is the worst thing you can do. Why? Because it often means that they’d be confronted with their incapacity to carry that load, that responsibility and the loneliness these major steps involve. And all they are left with is another failure to add to their list.  

Who are you talking about?

There are two types of homeless people, or actually three: 

– accidental folk, who get into crappy situations due to a divorce, loss of job, health problems. They may be on the street for a while but with proper  (social, medical, financial) help, they can get out of there;
– long term or chronic homeless, who have been on the streets (or on and off) for ten years or more, for whom the street scene has become a complex and chaotic lifestyle;
– and even fake homeless, who rent a room, get a monthly allowance, hang out on the streets or in stations all day and panhandle, but go home in the evening, take a shower, make food, watch tv. These people may have been homeless at some point, and got hooked on its lifestyle, on being with their pals and probably also on some substances, 

and I am talking exclusively about the lifestyle clochards here. 

Another important thing I have learned is that very often things are not what they seem to be. A poorly looking beggar may not be homeless at all, and a very neat city boy with good manners may actually be living in great misery on the streets. 

A hug, please!

Last Saturday I attended an event that involved homeless folk, and there was free beer. A clearly drugged out young Somali boy kept going back and forth to the beer stand, until a lady told him she could no longer serve him booze. He almost collapsed as he hobbled away. I dragged him to the steps of a Brussels monument, and made him sit down to eat a sandwich. My friends came to join us, and we simply sat with him for a moment. The African boy spoke three or four languages, including French, English and Dutch, but he kept falling asleep halfway a sentence. When we got ready to leave, he jumped up, asking us for a hug. My friend hugged him. Then he turned to me: “A hug!”. I hugged him. He was happy for a minute.

Thanks to this African refugee boy, this Saturday I got reminded of how primordial these simple signs of humanity and dignity are. And how it is in fact all that we can do, and it is huge. We are not here to radically change lives we hardly know anything about, for who do we think we are? This was my lesson of humility. I remembered how most of these folk are simply totally out of love. Or as Patrick Declerck mentions in his wonderful book “Les Naufragés” about the clochards from Paris: during their childhood, they have never received unconditional love from their parents. Sometimes it is that simple. 

Take care of yourself and the people around you. And let’s see what more we can do for the future. Keep it simple. And don’t let this beautiful but sick world spoil your passion. 


NB: I could talk about this subject and my experiences for days. If ever you should wish to organize a debate or conference, do not hesitate to contact me. It would be with great joy.

This entry was posted in Actions, Brussels, Emancipation, English, Homeless. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Helping the homeless: why nothing works (and yet everything helps)

  1. What a story Marlene – but very valuable to share your experiences here.


  2. Thomas says:

    Well written, very clear!


  3. Pingback: Aider les sans-abris: pourquoi rien ne marche (et pourtant). | Brusselsislove's Blog

  4. I admire what you tried to do but totally agree and I have to say, not surprised with your final statements and discoveries. A lot of homelessness is seated in such damage and often mental health that to aim to ‘just love’ rather than to change, is probably the only way to go. As you found, they are often not ready for the solutions. I think it’s why food vans work because they offer food and a chat which equals out to love street style. They are being seen, heard and loved with food.


    • Thank you, mindful! Yes, that was my conclusion indeed… and some civil solidarity does magic too. We can not expect everything from the politics, that is clear. And in my eyes, something should change on the public health level, at least here in Belgium.


  5. Merci pour aimer et suiver mon ‘blog’ 🙂 J’aime ton blog beaucoup- and nous aimons ecrire sur les memes sujects, de inequalite, justice, et culture de ‘pop.’ I’m American but took French for a years-I’m rusty, so sorry about the grammar! 🙂 Je peux travailler mon francais aussi! 🙂


    • Hello, girlfriend! How nice to see your post. And bravo for your French, it is not bad at all. Ever go to France or Belgium for an intensive course? 😉


      • listengirlfriends says:

        Awww, hey girlfriend! 🙂 I actually studied in Luxembourg for a year, and took French in school. I worked with Congolese refugees this past year and my French got so much better, but it’s amazing how quickly it goes when I don’t practice!


      • listengirlfriends says:

        And by the way, I went to Brugges, and it was one of my favorite cities – so romantic and gorgeous!!


  6. Pingback: When a man with power becomes a hunter of women | Brusselsislove's Blog

  7. Pingback: All For a Strawberry Milkshake-Selfishness and Activism « Confessions of a Latte Liberal

  8. Pingback: Helping the homeless: why nothing works (and yet everything helps) | Aider les sans-abris: pourquoi rien ne marche (et pourtant). |

  9. lljostes says:

    Thanks for the follow. I applaud your efforts to reach out to the homeless. Sometimes a “hug” is all that is needed. Blessings!


  10. Wonderful article! We will be linking to this particularly
    great post on our site. Keep up the great


  11. Anne Marie Seychell says:

    Just came across your article when I was searching some info on homeless in Brussels. My husband and I come here for a couple of days a month because my son is working here. We really don’t know what to do when we see homeless men women and couples with children. We sometimes give them some food. Some of them ask for money. What can we do to make them feel acknowledged?


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