Letter From Brussels

Le Gesu... Occupied and Then..

Julie Robert

In Brussels, there are between 20,000 and 40,000 empty houses and more than two million square metres of unoccupied offices. They are empty because their owners are waiting to get the work permit to start some renovations, or because rents are too expensive or simply because they belong to the city authorities that do not assign them to any of their departments.

In Brussels, there are hundreds of people living in the streets, sleeping in railway stations or on the pavement. There are dozens of families with children who are forced to survive without anything because they have no legal existence in country. Those people have nowhere to go, and as they do not have any papers, they are not even allowed to apply for a social housing or any accommodation provided to economically weak families by the government's social services.

In May 2009, more than a hundred people (120 to be exact) launched a movement for the occupation of empty buildings in Brussels. This group was principally made of families with children. But it also included a few singles, some artists and activists defending a political project. The latter made the choice to cohabit empty buildings with other families, to live with others in solidarity. They also wanted, through their occupation; to denounce the paradox of real estate bubble in the capital: empty buildings on one side and families living on the streets.

They first settled in a building belonging to Al Sabah Trust Company, a company based in Panama. The tax authorities of Saint-Gilles (one of the municipality of Brussels) had their offices there until they were relocated. Since then, the building was lying unused. On 11 May 2009, 120 people, including 54 children, occupied the space. They immediately made the necessary arrangements to ensure their security in the seven storey building. At the end of August, a court bailiff knocked on their door. He gave the order to quit the place within 48 hours. The Panama company had filed a case before a Belgian court to get the people out of the building. It argued that work needed to be done to convert the space into an art school and they needed to take possession of the place at the beginning of 2010.

A few days later, the whole group moved to an empty office building belonging to two companies established in Brussels. While it would have been impossible to enter the place during the day, they waited until late evening to move in and settle down. But they knew that they would not be strong enough to resist the owners who already sent a bailiff the day following their arrival. But thanks to the Minister of Housing who negotiated with them, the group got an extension of time of a few days to try to find another place to go. And it did so on 20th October!

This time in accordance with the private owner, the whole group moved to an empty building that used to be occupied by the STIB, the public transport company in Brussels. The owner, for once not a company, accepted a temporary occupation for three months. The two parts signed an agreement. This was a first, a contract for a 'legal squatting'. The contract between the owner and the group was quite simple, each one had to respect the imperatives of the other: a definite exit date, no rent, the occupants pay for their consump-tions (water, electricity, heating), the owner pays the taxes and other charges. According to the agreement, the group was allowed to stay for three months. But the most important thing about the agreement was that the people living there could take up residence. It meant that with their official address, they could apply for papers, but also for a job, for a place in a school for the children, for medical assistance, etc. The three months spent in that building went very well, as the group knew that they were protected against expulsions. Some had the chance to find a job and to leave the occupied space to rent their own place. The ones who stayed there took possession of the place, organised various workshops and activities with the children. And as they knew there was a deadline, they could plan their next relocation and try to find another unoccupied building.

Their next destination was a church called Le Gesu. In 1856, Jesuits established themselves in a house in the rue Royale in the municipality of Saint-Josse-ten-Noode. In 1860, an architect built a Gothic church at the rear of the house: Le Gesu. In 1937, the church was expanded and the house given a new modern fa├žade street-front. In the middle of the last century, the church was desecrated and the building put to sale. It remained on the real estate market for more than thirty years, and was finally sold in 2007 to a Swiss hotel group. It plans to transform the whole place into a five star holel. But getting all the permits takes time, and the building was still free of any occupants in January 2010. So the group, still made of numerous families, artists and activists decided to settle there. Once again, the idea was to get an agreement with the private owner to stay as long as nothing was being done to restore the building. Moreover, as the building belonged to a private company, the expulsion could only be ordered by a judge at the request of the owner. The local authorities had no role to play, as was the case in the previous occupation.

All along, the group has been supported by three organisations struggling for the right to housing in Brussels and by two volunteer lawyers. The Union des Locataires Marolienne (ULM) followed the group from the first day itself and helped the people to cope with external (owner, authorities, lack of social assistance) and internal (respect of the collective way of living) agencies and problems.

For nearly four years now, Le Gesu has been the home to more than a two hundred women, men and children, being one of the biggest squat in Europe. There, totally helpless families, without housing or earnings have been housed, nourished and furnished by themselves, thanks to the solidarity network developed around the project. The group organised itself in self-management, taking its decisions through assemblies. Each member of the group had to sign a 'collective lifestyle code' to ease the life in community. According to some activists living in Le Gesu, the self-management was very important as it gave responsibilities to everyone. The cleaning duty was shared between them, as was the cooking or the organisation of activities for the children. Several parties, and even weddings, took place in the building. A vast solidarity movement developed from the beginning of the squat (many donations of furniture, food, games, clothes). The group received the active and concrete support of several inhabitants of Brussels, but also from foreign visitors, especially for the organisation of activities with the children and to give free medical and legal assistance. The ULM strongly believed in the project. It even opened an office inside the building and paid a full-time employee to help the people with their administrative work and to support their struggle to get papers that would allow them to stay in Belgium legally.

Unfortunately, after two years or so, the difficulties became more and more apparent. It was always the same set of people that would do the thankless tasks. Since the beginning, some people of the group did not respect the 'collective lifestyle code'. At first, the others thought that it would change and that they would understand how important the code was to live together, but it never happened. The activists lost heart, and progressively left. Then started a vicious cycle; of lack of money leading to violence, thefts and so on. Some people started to rent their room for an hour or two, others started to deal to earn a little money. Moreover, the building was getting deteriorated: broken windows, defective heating, humidity, moisture, etc. Once, the Swiss owner paid to repair the entrance door and the boiler. The occupants were asked to take good care of the new installations, but as no one did, it soon broke again.

One should not be mistaken. The occupants were responsible for the deterioration of the situation. They had neglected responsibilities. Tired of trying to get the group organised and to do all the chores, the activists left the place. Even the ULM found it more and more difficult to work for the occupants. But also at fault were the politicians who let the situation deteriorate by refusing any serious help, leaving all the squatters to their fate of living in extreme poverty: no earnings, no status, and no adequate supervision, etc., and with no hope for the future. What was the primary need for the group were some enablers to help them quit the vicious circle of squatting/assistantship/dependence/doles and finally a total lack of opportunity to enable a person to be in charge. But the authorities did nothing, leading to what was to happen: expulsion.

In September 2013, the owner and the ULM were to sign a renewal of the agreement. Tired of the problems and of the deterioration of his building, the owner hesitated. Taking advantage of the situation, the mayor of Saint-Josse, Emir Kir, threatened to evict the now 220 people living in Le Gesu. The agreement was signed but the process of expulsion had already been launched by the authorities. It looked as if they had waited all these years for the first opportunity to put the 'expulsion machine' into action. At a press conference on 2 November, Emir Kir confirmed his intention to expel the 220 occupants, amongst whom there were more than a hundred children, from Le Gesu. His arguments: a lack of hygiene, an area of lawlessness, serious security problems, unhealthy conditions, complaints by the neighbours and so on and so forth. He was probably not wrong in all his arguments. But the question is: why now, at the beginning of the winter? Another question is: why didn't he do anything earlier to make the occupation sustainable? On Monday, 4 November, at around five in the morning, more than 200 policemen in riot-gear supported by dozens of police vehicles surrounded the old church and spread out into the neighbourhood. They broke into the building and pushed out all the people still in their rooms. As the mayor had previously and publicly announced the expulsion, some of the occupants had already left, some welcomed by friends, others nobody knows, but probably in the streets. Those who fled did it fearing police violence as well as an arrest followed by a confinement in a closed centre before a one-way ticket back to their country. On that morning, 26 illegal persons were arrested amongst the 119 who were still in the building. All the others were taken to a sports hall where they have all been questioned by the police. Afterwards, they were taken to foster home for the homeless. This place welcomes homeless people during the winter. They can take a shower, have a soup and sometimes spend the night. Where will they go now that their foster home has been requisitioned by Kir? The mayor has promised to find a solution for all the occupants, in consultation with the Minister of Housing. So far, 44 people have been put up in nine flats where they will be allowed to stay six months. The others are still in the foster home with no solution in sight.

Vol. 46, No. 34, Mar 2 - 8, 2014