HOMELESSNESS IN BELGIUM
The research in relation to the Belgian jurisdictional scope has been performed by Philippe Campolini and Joanna de Smelt (lawyers at Stibbe).
1. IS THERE A LEGAL DEFINITION OF “HOMELESS PEOPLE” IN YOUR JURISDICTION IF YES, WHERE IS IT REGULATED? HOW IS IT EVIDENCED?
A definition can be found in the regulation of the Brussels Joint Community Commission regarding emergency aid to and integration of homeless persons of 2018. The definition is the following:
“1° homeless person: a person who is in one or more of the following situations:
a) living in public spaces;
b) does not have housing, is unable to obtain housing by his own means and therefore has no place to stay;
c) does not have a dwelling that is habitable according to health, safety and habitability standards”
Another definition can be found in the Cooperation Agreement relating to homeless people of 12 May 2014 between different governments:
“Homelessness: situation where a person does not have his own dwelling, does not have the means to get one on his own and therefore does not have a place of residence, or temporarily stays in a place while waiting for his own place of residence to be made available to him.”
These definitions are based on the ETHOS typology (European Typology on Homelessness and Housing Exclusion), and divide homeless people in different categories, including people who live on the street, people in emergency shelters, people who are about to leave an institution etc.
2. DOES A LEGAL STATUS OF “HOMELESS PEOPLE” OR “HOMELESSNESS” INVOLVE A PARTICULAR OBJECT OF LEGAL PROTECTION? WHAT IS THE BASIC PROTECTION THAT IS RECEIVED IN YOUR JURISDICTION?
Emergency assistance and integration
(Regulations of 7 November 2002 and 14 June 2018)
Recognition of Centres
The Regulation of 7 November 2002 and the Regulation of 14 June 2018, which amends this regulation, provide for a number of measures and rights for homeless people. They organise the provision and structure of emergency assistance and integration of homeless people and organise an electronic system of information collection.
The Regulation is only applicable to the institutions falling under the authority of the Joint Community Commission. As many field work institutions fall under the competence of other governments, the regulation only applies to part of the field worker institutions.
In terms of content, the regulations organise the recognition of different organisations that do field work as “Centres”, which gives them rights to structural subsidies of the Joint Community Commission. These organisations include the following:
The Public Centre for Social Welfare (“PCSW”) (Centre Public d’Action Social);
municipalities or intercommunal organizations;
health funds or unions of insurance funds;
legal entities recognized as centres, these include NGO’s and public service institutions.
Other, optional subsidies can be applied for by Centres and unrecognised institutions. The Regulation of 2018 also explicitly provides for the establishment of two new organisations, Bruss’Help (coordination of emergency and integration measures) and New Samusocial (emergency assistance).
These Centres can provide one or more of following services:
outreach work (assistance on the street and guidance to shelters or integration assistance);
Short and middle term emergency shelter (12 to 24h per day);
Daytime shelter (psychological, administrative, and logistical assistance);
Long term shelter in reception homes (24h per day, with activities to integrate homeless in daily life and assistance activities);
Execution of the housing first program;
Assistance at home (to avoid that people lose their home).
The Regulation of 2018 grants a legal right to emergency assistance. This includes the following services: an emergency phone number (Bruss’Help), emergency shelter (between 20:00 and 8:00, within the capacity limits and until a place for integration is provided) and day shelter. However, this right is limited to persons who fall under certain nationality and residency permit requirements (homeless persons that do not fall within this category can nevertheless take advantage of these services, but without having a legally enforceable right to them).
Reception Homes – The Regulation of 2018 grants homeless people a right to access the services delivered by “reception homes”. These include a bedroom, a kitchen, a living room etc. Homeless people also have the right to psychological and administrative assistance. Assistance Homes can request a financial contribution of the homeless people.
Assistance at home – a person in need of assistance has a right to free access to assistance at home when he or she requests it, when he or she is not in a care institution.
Housing first – Depending on the number of places, a homeless person can request access to housing first assistance (see item 3 below).
Outreach – Homeless people can benefit from the services of outreach work. The outreach work can provide emergency assistance as well as information (such as relating to integration).
Social welfare payments and reference address
(Law of 24 January 1997)
Reference address – The law of 24 January 1997 allows homeless people to register themselves at the address of the Public Centre for Social Welfare (PCSW) where they usually reside. This allows homeless people to receive social welfare payments of the PCSW, as one of the requirements to receive social welfare payments is to have an official address.
A report of the Court of Auditors of the Joint Assembly of the Joint Community Commission of October 2014 nevertheless noticed that there are issues with access to social welfare payments for homeless people for following reasons:
the law provides a number of conditions aimed at limiting too easy access to social welfare payments, such as tightened access conditions. These conditions and the increased complexity of the administrative process can deter those who need the support the most;
there are often issues with the registration of homeless people at PCSWs, as the search for the competent PCSW is often time-consuming and cumbersome. This is because homeless people frequently move around and it cab therefore be difficult to find the PCSW of the municipality where the person usually resides. Furthermore, homeless people also tend to reside in the same municipalities, which leads overstretched PCSWs to refuse the registration of additional homeless persons on the ground that they would not be competent.
3. ARE THERE SPECIFIC MEASURES THAT PROMOTE ACCESS TO AFFORDABLE HOUSING FOR HOMELESS PEOPLE? HOW IS IT REGULATED AND HOW SHOULD IT BE SHOWED?
General integration measures
The general integration process is mainly operated through the services offered by reception homes. They provide shelter, psychological and administrative assistance. They are the starting point to help homeless people reintegrate in society.
Housing First projects
Belgium – The Housing First projects started as pilot projects between 2013 and 2016 in the municipalities of Brussels-City and Molenbeek (Brussels), Antwerp, Gent, and Hasselt (Flanders), Liege, Charleroi, and Namur (Wallonia).
In 2016, the projects were evaluated and considered to have had a positive effect. As of 2016, the Regions (Brussels, Flanders, Wallonia) support a number of Housing First teams. On Federal level, the Housing First Lab was established to support and inspire the development of good practises regarding Housing First.
The Housing First projects aim to provide housing at the start of the integration process (right from the street), instead of after a number of other integration steps are taken. The projects are aimed at those who have the least chance of success to integration under the normal process. The target group are those who (1) are homeless (ethos 1&2), (2) have been long-term homeless people, (3) are vulnerable (through addiction, mental and/or physical health issues), (4) need intensive assistance, and (5) can claim rights to social welfare or already receive social welfare payments.
Housing First Brussels – The housing first projects in Brussels are aimed at homeless people who cumulate one or several of following problems: social insecurity, mental illness, addiction or physical impairments. There are no conditions in terms of treatment or rehab. The renewal contract is usually a standard contract and the housing is spread over the city. The assistance is customized and voluntary.
The housing can be housing provided by the private housing market, social housing companies, social rent offices, the Brussels living funds, PCSWs, etc.
The Housing First efforts in Brussels are led by four organisations (SMES-B, Straatverplegers vzw, Samusocial and Diogenes vzw).
Results – In 2016, 93% of the homeless people who managed to get a home through the Housing First Belgium project were still living in a home after two years. In Brussels, the average was 91.5%. After 5 years of the Brussels Housing First project, only 10% of the resettled persons went back to the street for a longer period.
4. IS HATE CRIME SPECIFICALLY REGULATED AGAINST HOMELESS PEOPLE IN YOUR JURISDICTION? DO YOU KNOW ANY CASE?
The Belgian Criminal Code increases the minimum punishments of certain crimes when one of the incentives for committing the crime consisted of hate against, the contempt for, of the hostility towards someone’s race, ethnicity, social origin and a number of other criteria. However, none of these criteria concerns homelessness specifically.
5. HAVE SPECIFIC MEASURES TO PROTECT THE HEALTH OR FOOD RIGHTS OF HOMELESS PEOPLE HAVE BEEN APPROVED DURING THIS COVID-19 CRISIS?
Brussels reopened drinking fountains around Brussels earlier during the year to facilitate the accessibility of drinking water to homeless (as of the end of March instead of mid-April).
The food distribution in Brussels moved to a more spacious area so homeless people were able to eat while keeping sufficient distance (from metrostation Kruidtuin to nearby the Central Station).
Several municipalities in the Brussels Region (including Brussels-City, Etterbeek and Vorst) ordered hotels to take in homeless people during the COVID-19 crisis;
Several Centers prepared beds in separate locations for people with symptoms of COVID-19.
6. HAVE DATA ON TRANSPARENCY AND POSSIBLE CLAIMS FOR HOMELESS PEOPLE IN PARTICULARLY VULNERABLE SITUATIONS BEEN PROVIDED?
The report by the Court of Auditors of October 2019 mentioned above, disclosed that there is in general a lack of useful information to adjust the policies against homelessness, these include a lack of useful information on:
the total costs of the measures against homelessness, as the data are not centralised and because the accounts are divided over the different governments (no clear overview);
the characteristics and composition of the homeless population;
the number of homeless people that receive social welfare payments;
the capacity of shelters around Brussels;
the occupancy rate of the shelters;
the number of re-integrated homeless people;
The waiting lists and terms for shelters.
The Court of Auditors concluded that this lack of information makes it hard to build a coherent strategy to fight homelessness and provides for specific recommendations to increase this information.
The Court of Auditors further concluded that this lack of information is mostly due to the multitude of governments and institutions in charge of the fight against homelessness and lack of centralisation or even collection of data.
In Brussels, in particular, no less than seven governments are in charge of fighting homelessness, namely:
The Joint Community Commission;
The French Community
The French Community Commission;
The Flemish Community;
The Flemish Community Commission;
The Brussels Region;
The Federal Government.
To streamline their cooperation and to increase the collection and sharing of information, these governments concluded the Cooperation Agreement relating to homeless people of 12 May 2014 (see also item 1).
The Agreement entrusted the “Interministerial Conference for Integration in society” (“IMC”) with 1) drafting an inventory for planned and existing actions to fight homelessness, 2) the collection and coordination of objective data needed to elaborate policies.
However, the report of the Court of Auditors of 2019 noted that the IMC only convened 12 times between 1995 and 2013, and had only convened once (in January 2018) since the Cooperation Agreement o 2014. When the report was published, the inventory was not drafted, nor had any action been taken to collect information regarding homeless people.
To further promote the collection of data regarding homelessness, the regulation of 14 June 2018 (see also items 1 and 2) makes the creation of a “social file” obligatory, which would include information on the identification and trajectory of homeless people. The different Centres (see item 2) are entrusted with including the data of homeless people in the social file. The “regional service integrator” which was established through the Regulation of 8 May 2014, is in charge of the management of the “network of social files” and the compliance with GDPR rules.
Information distribution to homeless people
The different Centres provide information to homeless people through their working. The outreach Centres provide information to homeless people already on the street about emergency and integration assistance they can turn to.
Some governments and organisations have published information and guides aimed at homeless people. For example, the Federal Government Service for social integration published a “Guide for homeless people”.
7. HAS ANY LEGAL ACTION BEEN TAKEN TO PROTECT PARTICULARLY VULNERABLE PEOPLE FROM BECOMING HOMELESS?
In Brussels, all expulsions of someone of his or her home are prohibited until 31 august 2020, except for expulsions that are justified by a serious and immediate threat to public security that cannot be postponed until 31 august 2020. The police is in charge of supervision over the compliance with this regulation. Similar regulations exist in Wallonia and Flanders, but might have different deadlines.
The report of the Court of Auditors of 2019 concluded that there is a much larger focus on providing emergency and integration assistance than on prevention.