Thursday, just before 8:00 p.m. There are still a few dozen commuters at Zaventem’s check-in desks, but the pervasive sound of rolling trolleys has died down, and a pleasant bustle remains. A security guard skips past. “Where are the homeless? Well, in Delhaize on the second day,” she sighs.
It’s a bit like The Terminal, the movie where Tom Hanks gets stuck in a New York airport, but people who live in an airport for months or years do exist. At Brussels Airport, there are currently around 75. The airport confirms that this number is higher than it has been in recent years.
We speak to a man from Leuven, in his late thirties. “I am a dancer and will be performing here soon,” he said excitedly. The man is wearing a brown jacket, army pants and sneakers. His cart is full of suitcases and plastic bags. “Yeah… I’ve had problems with my flat in Heverlee and I’ve been waiting for social housing from OCMW for several months now. I’ve been sleeping here ever since. Do you see that guy over there at the ATM? Sleeping next to me. You won’t say that.” But he’s also homeless.” The man, in his forties, is freshly shaven, wears skinny jeans and a smart winter jacket. He also has a cart with bags. You automatically think he’s a passenger. The man nodded once. “And that woman over there!” It is immediately apparent how the homeless are as unobtrusive as possible by pretending to be travelers waiting.
Water, toilets and heat
“The police have already given us a message that we have to leave by the end of March, but many homeless people have not found another place to stay,” the thirty-year-old from Leuven tells us. “The deadline has been extended to May, but they absolutely want us.” He’s getting a little impatient: he wants to go to the ballroom to dance and earn some money. “Vacationers are really nice,” he says, pointing to his Samsonite suitcase. “Owned by a passenger, just like this watch.”
Margaret (44), a single woman with Polish roots, also wants to tell her story. She sits gracefully with her legs crossed on a chair, like another homeless man with an airplane pillow on his neck. Margaret is elegantly dressed. She wears a blue linen pullover with a gray hat, green leggings and Nike sneakers. Her nails are painted red. “I walk around in clothes and make-up lost by travelers. That is why I am often unrecognizable,” she says. Travelers often throw shampoo or shower gel in the trash because their suitcase weighs a lot. And so I can take a bath in the evening.”
“I worked as an economist in Poland for 16 years, but I wanted to start my own company,” she continues in English. Before that I moved to Holland, but my company went bankrupt. I failed and now I am in huge financial trouble. My family in Poland thinks I should sort things out myself. I thought it would be easier to find help or work in Belgium, but…” the woman is affected. “I don’t really know what help I can turn to. I slept one night in the center of Brussels, as my mobile phone was stolen and now I can’t get through. So I’ve been here for half a year. But if you are homeless, there is no better place than the airport. We have water, toilets and heating. And there is safety, which as a woman I find important. Nobody bothers me.”
According to Margaret, there have been homeless people who have been “living” here for years, one for six years. “In the morning, I read some newspapers left behind, trying to learn some English and communicate with people for help. Or go to the hostel in the area to use the computer for a while. But it’s hard. Alone.”
Dozens of complaints
Traders are tired of so many homeless people, because so few go so often. The Delhaize branch at the airport has already filed dozens of complaints with the police. “I even handed a USB stick with camera pictures, but nothing happened,” said Ken (44) in charge. “I’ve been working here for eight years and it’s never been this bad. Beer gets stolen or arguments every day. They make a lot of noise, harass customers and call them names. One of the homeless people, Constantine – yes, the manager actually knows them by name – peed lately and he Drunk among store shelves. Yesterday they set fire to garbage cans. It’s unbelievable. Homeless people from Eastern Europe are really dangerous, I’ve already had to fight twice in the store. Security agents are doing their best, I know, but there Something urgently needs to change, “he concludes.
Closed at night
Brussels Airport acknowledges the problem and says it has been decided to give security officers more shifts to prevent inconvenience. The airport will also be closed for the first time between midnight and 3 a.m. from Tuesday. “Normally open 24/7, it’s a temporary closure for a few weeks,” says spokeswoman Ehsan Shiwa Lakhli. On the one hand, because this isn’t a homeless shelter – that’s a problem the government needs to work on. On the other hand, we will do a big cleanup during that period to prepare for the summer period, which is not possible if there are people at the airport.” The homeless have been informed of the closure and other shelter sites by chaplains from the airport and relief workers from CAW who visit several times a week.
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