The British chamber blog is written by guest authors and does not reflect the views of the chamber.
Infirmiers de rue – pioneers in the idea of Ending Street Homelessness
It all started with two young nurses, Emilie and Sarah, who were convinced that street homelessness is not a fate, and something we do not have to accept. In 2005 they created the non-profit organisation Street nurses in Brussels. Their job initially consisted of taking care of the health of the homeless by cleaning wounds during their trips through the city and going to meet the most vulnerable people in our society. Quickly they realised that their health is not getting any better on the street. Therefore, these people need a home. Over the years comes the awareness that in order to have housing, housing opportunities must be created.
There are a lot of social services providing food, shelter, clothes, showers, and other resources to the homeless, but guidance is lacking. These people are so vulnerable they need professional help to get out of the street, and this is where we come in. We are building bridges between the most vulnerable people in our society, their environment, and health care services.
Street nurses is convinced that in order to end homelessness, we have to work on three major components for a global approach to face the problem. First of all, our dynamic team of nurses and social workers actively goes out and finds people living on the street. We accompany our patients for several years, guiding them from the street to a stable home, and continue to follow-up on them even after they have moved in to prevent any return to the street.
As our organisation aims to build bridges between the homeless people and the different existing services to help them, we are glad to share our knowledge and experience with other professionals who encounter them. This year, more than 340 people benefited from the hygiene & vulnerability training that we organise.
There are some facilities for homeless people like public fountains, toilets, and showers, but they do not especially know where these are located. This is why it is important to work on infrastructure and access to information. We make these facilities effective by helping people to get to know them with maps which are regularly updated. We also spread information about hyper- and hypothermia prevention, as well as other sickness prevention.
100 people out of the street
Working on these three aspects at the same time has proven effective, because by now more than one hundred homeless people in Brussels have returned to a much safer, healthier and more enjoyable life and are now living on their own or in institutions, according to their needs and thanks to our services.
Not only were we able to rehouse more than one hundred vulnerable people, but we also changed the mentality in this field. The organisation was a pioneer in believing that we can end street homelessness in Brussels, and by now the vast majority of organisations accepts the idea that this goal is achievable in the medium term. We hope that making Brussels free of homelessness will provide an example for other cities in our country and beyond.
Our role as a society
As a society, we should invest in support for the most vulnerable people, for they should not be excluded from our society. They should be a priority, because only with the necessary guidance and support can they make a decent living again. The society should put the necessary efforts into making core needs and basic rights accessible, even to the most vulnerable people. Having a roof above your head or enough food and water are rights enshrined in the constitution.
In our daily work, we focus on the hygiene and the self-esteem of every person we follow. We believe everyone has wonderful resources and talents and we try to put these forward, helping people to believe in themselves again. We respect our patients with their own choices and preferences. Every person has their own life story and past to deal with and we respect their rhythm, take the time they need to improve their situation and get them out of the street.
Social justice as a solution
Our advocacy for more support and follow-up for the homeless people is part of our vision of social justice. What we want to achieve is equal access for everybody to the different services included in our healthcare system. In order to make this possible, justice is not enough. Justice means that everybody is equal, which implies that the same effort should be done to make some service accessible to someone. In reality, vulnerable people need more help to get access to those same services, because they stay way further behind. What we ask for is social justice, which does not mean that everyone gets the same help, but the same access, no matter how much effort has to be put into certain groups to help them get access. With this definition of social justice, proportionated universalism is made real.
“Resourcing and delivering universal services at a scale and intensity proportionate to the degree of need” (NHS, 2014), also known as proportionated universalism, is the best available solution to help the ones who need it. In this sense, social justice is a value we should cherish and hold dear. The benefits of proportionated universalism are numerous. First of all, in this system, nobody is left apart. The most vulnerable people, but also the people with a precarious lifestyle can get enough help. For society in general, this term is given sense and the end of homelessness is something we can all be part of. Also in our field we can be a source of inspiration for other organisations and services by carrying the idea that it is a matter of rights and that it is possible to achieve our goal, a city without homelessness.
For social services, it is a matter of responsibility to be accessible to those in need, and even if they are mostly favourable, they do not always have the means to overcome the difficulties the care of the patient brings with it. They should get the necessary support to learn how to handle different cases. Being open-minded and showing flexibility in procedures is not a matter of making rules unimportant, it means adapting to your public to help them in the best way you can. The future is in our hands, the solution is ours, and by taking responsibility as a society, we can and will end street homelessness.
NHS, S. (2014, October). Proportionate universalism and health inequalities. Retrieved from healthscotland.com: http://www.healthscotland.com/uploads/documents/24296-ProportionateUniversalismBriefing.pdf