Increased repression and above all stigmatisation of street communities has been observed everywhere. In Belgium, police operations have generated considerable tension in the most underprivileged areas. Street workers have often had to act as mediators following these confrontations between the law enforcement agencies and local communities.
The homeless community very quickly became a particular target for the authorities because they were not complying with the lockdown instructions. Emergency accommodation needed to be found and the homeless population had to be protected against the risk of repression (fines, prison sentences etc). Some cities and countries established curfews which were unenforceable for the homeless. Many homeless people moved to other cities or hid themselves away, sometimes taking numerous extra risks in the process. At the start of winter in Belgium, we are particularly concerned about the drop in the number of beds for the homeless because of social distancing measures in emergency shelters.
“Because of the closure of numerous services and because the homeless have been hounded out of their usual spots under the pretext of the pandemic, street workers are now devoting a lot of time and effort to ascertaining the whereabouts of the homeless who could be in danger.”
Bram Van de Putte, Diogènes, Brussels.
Our experience also shows that many of the messages conveyed by countries’ governments are ignored. This is sometimes due to a failure to understand the message. And sometimes there is fake news about COVID-19.
“There is a lot of fake news on the streets: ‘speed kills coronavirus’, ‘drinking vinegar makes you immune’, ‘migrants are spreading the virus’, etc. The challenge is to help inform people about the truth and about effective prevention measures.”
Cis Dewaele, Flanders – Belgium.
“Our method of conveying prevention messages needs to be constantly refreshed because everyone has different ideas about the virus. Some think they are automatically protected because they have already experienced everything possible on the streets, while others are very well-informed and ask us for PPE, and there are those who simply refuse to believe it at all.”
Testimony supplied by Elisabeth, street nurse, Brussels
In Europe, a considerable number of young adults (aged 18-25) have also seen their circumstances worsen. They are no longer earning any money and are now swelling the ranks of a new category of poor people. Over time, some are forced to stay living with their parents and come into conflict with them, with the clashes caused by living together getting worse over time. The number of young people and not-so-young people living on the streets is increasing, and not just in the major cities. It is no longer unusual in smaller towns to come across a homeless young person looking for shelter under a football ground terrace or seeking some warmth in a bank atrium.
Child migrants are also one of the biggest concerns. Over 1,800 unaccompanied children live in migrant reception and identification centres on the Greek islands. These children are denied access to their most basic rights, such as housing, water, food, healthcare and counselling, as well as education. A large number of children are homeless. They sleep, without tents, in the camps alongside adults who are strangers, despite Greek law requiring unaccompanied children to be placed in child-appropriate accommodation. Unaccompanied children are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking and other forms of exploitation, particularly sexual exploitation, forced begging, street selling and others forms of child labour. This situation is worsening by the day with border closures.
Some countries have banned street education, although this has not prevented street workers from continuing with their work, while providing care and PPE (masks, sanitizer etc). Most of our colleagues from Africa and Asia have increased provision for children in shelters and food distribution in light of the difficulties faced by children in street situations when trying to make a living in the current circumstances. These children often do not have access to clean water and hygiene facilities, soap and water. This means that they are unable to comply with the recommendations made by the public health authorities seeking to reduce the spread of the disease.
Street workers support the most vulnerable in different settings in which poverty, health problems, drug use, and violence, are daily realities. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified these problems. This is particularly true in the poorest countries, where populations in street situations are the hardest hit. For many, the possibility of earning even a small income and/or receiving support, simply does not exist.
“Life ‘before’ coronavirus was already very complicated, and it is a nightmare now. When you are hungry, when you no longer know how to feed your children or family, being mindful of hygiene and taking precautions against the virus are of secondary importance.”
Jean-Christophe Ryckmans, Nepal
The closure of schools, apart from creating an education gap, is also increasing food insecurity by cutting off 300 million children from their school meals, while families are already experiencing economic difficulties, as many parents who were reliant on the informal and precarious economy in order to earn a living have lost their incomes.
Some schools have tried to continue delivering an education online. However, this ignores the fact that half of the world’s population does not have internet access and that, even in the most industrialised countries, many families do not have a computer or printer, as well as having a poor internet connection. While in the past we have often spoken about children dropping out of school, from now on we will be able to talk about schools dropping out of children’s lives. Some 1.7 billion children are not in school, and many of them will never return, particularly young girls who run the risk of early marriage, among other issues.
We are also receiving positive accounts, such as in Nepal, where the number of arrests of children in street situations has decreased because police officers are scared of catching the virus. Other positive situations can be seen in several European countries where young people and street workers have arranged to help the most elderly and isolated people who are no longer able to get out and about. It is also worth highlighting the response of some local authorities. They very swiftly requisitioned accommodation for the homeless (Brussels, Kortrijk, Gand, Ostend, Roeselare, Hasselt and Sint-Niklaas).
Disadvantaged neighbourhoods are facing higher infection rates and consequently greater pressure from the authorities. Population density, substandard housing, multigenerational households, houses in multiple occupation, and the lack of green space, all increase the risks.
“While the process of impoverishment has continued on its destructive path without any obstacles, the pandemic has first and foremost brought out and highlighted the many difficulties experienced by the most vulnerable people. Endemic community isolation has turned into families being isolated, families have continued to be caught in a web of fear, with the consequence being an increase in mental health problems; violent behaviour, both in families and in public, is becoming increasingly frequent; prostitution has increased, various forms of addiction have flourished, more beggars are appearing, as are new homeless people; a feeling of rebellion and despair have continued to grow in young people’s minds; social alienation, which was already eroding the spirit of teenagers who lacked any meaning in their lives, has really drawn on the global context.”
Marc De Koker, director of AMO Rythme, on behalf of the Brussels Collective of Outreach Organisations*, co-chair of the Brussels Area Prevention Council.
Lockdown in precarious living conditions has also generated a large number of issues: the lack of light, physical exercise, isolation, and a prolonged sedentary lifestyle, are having an impact on the cognitive and physical development of society’s youngest members. There are nutrition and hygiene issues in many homes.
Mental health is also at stake. We are already observing extreme situations, with people becoming unbalanced, starting to become depressed, and threatening to self-harm. Homes are becoming “pressure cookers” and not all the adults in each household can manage the situation. Abusive and inappropriate use of smartphones, tablets and video gaming were already a concern but this is even more the case now, with problems such as eye strain, headaches, sleep disorders, over-stimulation, anxiety, addiction etc. Cyber-bullying, sexting and problem gambling now enjoy a free rein 24 hours a day.
During these long lockdowns, pre-existing domestic abuse (physical, psychological, sexual abuse etc) is increasing and is making minors particularly isolated and vulnerable. The Council of Europe says that one in five children in Europe is a victim of sexual violence. According to ECPAT International statistics, 74% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by a person from a child’s circle of trust. Women are now also more vulnerable to domestic abuse.
They no longer have any links with the outside world, there is no “breathing space” in relationships, and there are no witnesses or supportive adults on hand. Pressure, despair and conflicts can trigger violence or abandonment, and risky behaviour and running away from home in children.
In addition, there is a growing gap between children with access to technology and social media and some kind of family structure, and those who are marginalised by a lack of connections with the outside world. There is a gap between those who live in a home with a garden, terrace or balcony, and those who only have an interior window. There are also families who live in miniscule flats without individual leisure spaces and in multi-generational households.
Many teams of street workers in many countries are finding it hard to continue their work due to a number of pressures, as well as public and private funding being stopped. However, street workers know the most at-risk people and know where to find them. And because they meet their specific needs, they are regarded as being trustworthy and consequently able to give communities the means to take action.
Consequently, it is vital that the work is done on the streets and in communities so that these people can better protect each other and protect others. As a result, street workers play a crucial and practical role in supporting people who are excluded from the system, particularly in this crisis period.
“In Romania, many street work organisations are funded by donations made by business, because donations are tax-deductible. Given the economic impact of COVID-19, a large number of these companies have stopped providing funding, which has a clear impact on the street workers’ ability to provide services, at a time when demand and management costs are increasing. The workers fear that their organisations will not survive. Many associations have had to make workers redundant because of this funding issue. Some have continued working on an individual and voluntary basis despite the situation. Those who remain are now on the minimum wage and are working part time, stopping their everyday work and focusing on providing basic essentials and some specialised social services to needy people,” Ionut Jugureanu, Romania.
Fear also weighs heavily on the shoulders of both adults and children. The fear felt by adults is particularly visible. Fear of the outside, the virus, death, others, the gulf that has opened up over time between us. This fear is connected to uncertainty.
Now, more than ever, this worldwide fear provides bad counsel. It is in the name of fear that there has been a crackdown on street communities, neighbours have been reporting each other for breaching lockdown rules, governments have become isolated, decreeing rules that are sometimes difficult to understand, and above all not taking into consideration the ethos of solidarity that needs to play out between the different countries and within the population.
Nobody knows exactly what tomorrow holds and what the consequences of the pandemic will be, with uncertainty being an integral part of the landscape. How can we start to dialogue and debate again when, for weeks at a time, we had to adhere to the lockdown, against the backdrop of a pandemic? How can we awaken our minds, which are sometimes stagnant and immobilised by this context, in order to create the new world that is opening up before our very eyes? How can we restore this vital trust, when mistrust has taken over during the last few months? And, above and beyond thinking, how are we going to organise our street work practices in this unique period?
Above all, we need to objectively analyse what has happened and what is still happening now; the imposition of a single vision of the pandemic and what needs to be done to contain it, the influence of the media and experts as individuals, “who will be on the news again tonight?”, collective stances holding little sway… All of this should concern us as much as COVID-19 itself.
The return to school and keeping children in school or in other alternative options remain vital if children are not to become the forgotten victims of the post-lockdown period. It is not just the educational aspect of school that counts. On the contrary, the social, emotional and psychological facets of school are also very important for children.
Currently, the political discourse is mainly driven by a handful of experts who favour keeping individuals distanced from each other by setting a target of “zero risk”. More and more voices are criticising the collateral damage caused by the policy of lockdown and/or distancing. Humans are first and foremost social beings who need others to develop. Living in isolation goes against their nature.
The fate of the overwhelming majority of the world’s population has considerably worsened because of the pandemic. In 2020, an additional 88-115 million people were pushed into extreme poverty and will be living on less than $1.90 a day, while some large multinationals significantly increased their wealth. How can we balance the growing wealth gaps, which mean that the richest 1% have benefited twice as much from income growth as the poorest 50% over the past few decades?
55% of the world’s population have no social protection, 15% are not fully covered, and 2/3 of workers are in the informal economy and therefore have no protection. A solid, flexible and resilient social protection system, accessible to all without any discrimination, is the best safeguard against the worsening circumstances of a growing number of vulnerable people.