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?