Showers and more: meet DoucheFLUX

The Challenge: 

The Question: 

How to develop relationships on a truly equality basis between people opposed by highly unequal life conditions ?

The Problem: 

It's complicate to overcome organisations' "egos" whent it comes to developping synergies and partenerchips.

The Solution: 

Always keep in mind the absence of any perfect solution and fight to limit to the minimum the negative side-effects of this absence.

Channels: 

The beginning is quite weird ­ it's usually like that.
In another life I’m an artist, and in that life, a decade ago, I have set up Collectif MANIFESTEMENT.

The group’s unique goal is to organize a demonstration once a year and go to the streets with a theme. The matter is usually peculiar, weird or unexpected, and we spend a year, or even longer, preparing the different aspects of the protest.

So, in 2010 we settled upon a subject that addressed the homeless people in Brussels. We did it without them, but for them ­ and invited them to join us. It was the first time we came to know some of this population, and the more discovered and understood about them, the more stories and testimonies we collected about their lives, the less sense it made to just wrap everything up and move on to something new.

One of the follow­ups of this process was a book, in which we gathered and edited short stories from homeless people we’ve met. It was published in both Flemish and French, and it made many institutions hate us, as many people in that book frankly complained about their work.

Ok, we have a bright and pretty broad vision of affairs. Now, what? We had to propose something, and the more I thought of it, the bigger it became in my head. It was overwhelming and ambitions, and I felt I can’t start. That was until I met a woman, who happened to be my former student from the French classes I teach. She was a perfect partner: Flemish, woman, and a businesswoman on top of it. Together we framed the project and made it ripe for implementation in early 2012.

It started as a nonprofit in May 2012, but we still took a year to outline some of the details and propose a solid program. It remained complex and ambitious ­ and it’s important to keep it that way. The organization managed to raise money from private sources to buy and renovate a building in Brussels (in fact we are still short of renovation money, and we are looking for 500.000 to get the job done). The space is so huge (650 square meters) that we can both offer support to many homeless people and invite other organizations working on the topic to use it. There is another reason why we made it so big ­ if the place was small and crowded with homeless from, say, Morocco, a Belgian single homeless person wouldn’t enter, even if we offered what they needed. It would just feel overwhelming.

The mission of DoucheFLUX is to promote self­-esteem and help homeless people regain a positive image of themselves. The activities we propose do not make them feel intimidated. We forbade the usage of the words such as "culture" or "art" in the space, as well. Together with these precarious people, we produce a magazine, that is published 4­5 times a year. We also release a monthly broadcast, organize meetings in schools and film debates. Recently, we’ve been busy designing a board game that allows regular people to understand and experience the hardships and challenges of homelessness. The idea wasn’t mine ­ one of the homeless people proposed it as a way to engage with passers­by. We are preparing the beta version to be ready for the Brussels Game Festival.
After the opening of the building, which should happen by the end of the year, we will finally extend our services beyond going to the streets and establishing relations with the homeless. We will have 20 showers ­ 7 for women, 12 for men, and one for people on wheelchair. There will be also medical area and daily medical staff which our guests can appoint. This simple thing will hopefully fix once and for all the problem with access to showers in Brussels. We’re in the capital of Europe, but for people on the street there is only La Fontaine, which provides one shower per person a week, and you even have to be lucky to get it.

Obviously, if we have showers, we need to have laundry. And the lockers. A huge problem among this community: there are virtually no lockers in Brussels, therefore people constantly get robbed and lose their things. As a result, they end up in a vicious circle of bureaucracy to get back whatever papers and permissions they need, and incredible insecurity. We will have 400 lockers, from super small for medicine and documents, to bigger ones.

And finally, we would like to open a help desk at DoucheFlux one day. Which means we don’t want to become the only organization covering all their needs ­ but to provide them with information on where they could be offered help with other problems. We want this to be accompanied by the first centralized website, simple and intuitive so that people who don’t speak French or Flemish will be able to navigate it. It’s incredible how untransparent Brussels is to these people ­ they have no idea where to find a lawyer, where to sleep, eat, get their medicine or find work. This idea is supported by everyone from the field in the city.

We are also facing some challenges around financing (we think we have reached the limits of private donations in the country at this point) and we consider turning the space into a public-­private entity. Our bargaining chip is all our achievement ­ we hope the formal institutions will see it as a necessity to support an initiative that has gone so far on its own. We have 50 volunteers, we employ and pay only one person (we want to extend it to at least 2­3), and all that without a single euro from the state. I’m optimistic about it ­ I don’t think anyone would like to see us closed at that point.

Would you like to share you experience with work with vulnerable social groups? What are the hardships, common misconceptions, institutional obstacles you find exceptionally striking? What is your strategy to engage with these groups and help them overcome mistrust and lack of confidence?

Comments

Good luck with finding the budget!

Yannick's picture

Hello Laurent, thanks for sharing your story, really interesting to read about the inside of a collective that i hear a lot about in the last couple of years. I also read your article on Bruzz about the financing and i really wish you luck. I wanted to contact you if you would like to share this story at the workshop event we are holding on the 24th in Brussels? It would really be great to have you also participate in a moment where local organizations can interconnect and talk about care and how they organize. More info: https://www.facebook.com/events/280924708934187/

Kindly regards, 
Yannick

 

ok, withe great pleasure, but not the all day !

Laurent dUrsel's picture

dear Yannick, sorry for this late answer : you were my very first message on this plateform... Thank you for the invitation, it would be a pleasure for me, of course, to join, but a nephew has the terrible idea to get married this 24th of September, so I'm afraid I'll have to leave around 1 PM. Is it still possible ? And does this mean that the 24th of September replaces the 10-11 September worshop, Nadia spoke me about ? Yours Laurent

Sure, come!

Noemi's picture

Hi @Laurent dUrsel nice to meet you, I'm one of Yannick's and Nadia's colleagues, coming to Brussels for the workshop.

Indeed, the dates have changed so this workshop is the only one, and I'm sure you are welcome to join anyway. Looking forward to meet you!

Of course you are welcome

Yannick's picture

Hello Laurent, of course you are welcome, you can always bring somebody else from your team with you, i just need to know how much people will come so i prepare the accomodation as good as possible.

 

SHWASHLOCK redux

Alberto's picture

This reminds me of one of my favourite networked computing stories: back in 1990, the City of Santa Monica (California) launched a service called SHWASHLOCK (SHowers, WASHing machines and LOCKers). The idea for this service had come from a bunch of residents, some of whom were homeless, hanging out on the city's Public Electronic Network (PEN). At the time, of course, there was no Internet: PEN was a civic network accessible locally. SHWASHLOCK is the first public service designed on a computer network that I know of.

Santa Monica's libraries had terminals connected to the PEN, and some homeless residents were using the libraries. This is how homeless and homed residents were able to come to share a common hangout, and design together a simple, but very useful service. 

It turns out that online spaces are quite good at removing some of the social markers that make interaction across social groups so awkward (and more power to you, @Laurent_d'Ursel , for overcoming that awkardness!). In the words of Donald Paschal, one of the homeless residents: 

“PEN is a great equalizer. No one on PEN knew that I was homeless until I told them. After I told them, I was still treated like a human being… the most remarkable thing about the PEN community is that a City Council member and a pauper can coexist, albeit not always in perfect harmony, but on an equal basis.”

More info on SHWASHLOCK and its implications for public participation online: http://www.cottica.net/2012/08/29/the-computers-of-the-excluded/

That's the first (strange) word Nadia uttered: SHWASHLOCK!

Laurent dUrsel's picture

I mean Nadia El-Immam, of course. And I think, dear Alberto, that a kind of SHWASHLOCK-DoucheFLUX partenership would be welcome... in the future. Because right now we are mainly running to get the 400.000 € missing to finsih the renovation of the future DoucheFLUX building. But, yes, the words of Donald Paschal you quoted are very inspiring. Thanks ! Laurent

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