mardi 16 juillet 2013

Care and links to get off the streets

In Brussels, Infirmiers de Rue (Street Nurses) coordinates a health and hygiene network in order to help homeless people regain self-confidence and to empower them so that they can look forward to social reintegration. Health professionals and social workers, but also station officers, park keepers, pharmacists, shop owners and other volunteers from all backgrounds are trained to ensure regular follow-ups, prevent critical situations and help people in need to build back their life again. Emilie and Sara created and developed that efficient network, building on the homeless person’s resources and the urban environment. Emilie tells me more.  

A map stands in the walls of Emilie’s office – it shows the network of drinkable water fountains and public toilets in Brussels. Emilie explains: “At the basis of our organization, there is the belief that we should build on what is positive, and encourage what is efficient already”. The same is true for homeless people, politicians, or doctors: when one receives compliments, one wants to do better and more.

Emilie and Sara have a breakthrough when they are 24: by reintroducing hygiene in their daily routines, homeless people can learn to love themselves again. According to Emily, this goes for everyone: “The days we skip the shower are the days we are tired and don’t feel like seeing anyone. When we have plans, we want to make an effort.” Thus, encouraging someone to more hygiene is like saying: “You are worth something, we know it – you just need to rediscover it.”

A calling: Street nurse

How does one end up tacking that kind of issue? Let’s go back a bit. As a little girl, Emilie feels attracted by both the street and abroad. She has vivid memories of being encouraged to help out people in the street with a coin, and have a chat with them. About going abroad, that is something that grows with the stories of her godfather, a humanitarian doctor in Africa.

Emilie grows up in Namur and then studies nursing in Brussels. Slightly before graduating, she goes to Burkina-Faso with her friend Sara. They work on hygiene education. When she comes back, Emilie decides to help the not-for-profit organization “La Fontaine”, which offers hygiene and health services to homeless people. Her calling grows stronger. “I liked the communication with people, what we were bringing to each other. In a simple and authentic way.”

She then specializes in community health, goes back to Burkina-Faso then to French Guyana, works in Brussels on street issues: prostitution and drug-addiction.

Facing the facts and going for it…

Emilie is hired at “La Fontaine”. She likes her job, but something is missing. It is during a holiday with Sara that she puts her feelings into words: she wants to develop a new way of helping homeless people. Sara is enthusiastic. “It was really amazing, because I don’t think I would have known where to start, without her I wouldn’t have been…” She snaps her fingers and smiles…

Throughout 2005, they both spend half their time meeting with professionals who could help. They are still amazed at how some people living on the street do not realize anymore how severe their condition is, and, thus, do not visit the dedicated association – and yet there are many in Brussels.

Infirmiers de Rue is born to cater for their needs, and to help professionals who often find themselves powerlessly faced with extreme situations. After the creation of the legal body, the work on the streets starts early 2006.

They get financial and media support from the beginning. Emilie summarizes: “Two girls who had just completed their studies, and worked with homeless people… it moved a lot of people”. In 2008, they take part to the Contest “Impact” organized by Ashoka, which allows them to explain better how specific their action is: they help homeless people rediscover hygiene and rebuild the connexion with medical care.

Take care of oneself, regain control on one's life

« In everyday life, these people try to survive: to eat, to sleep, to be safe. If they go to the doctor, they may suddenly think that they could still be alive in five years, that it is worth to look after oneself”, explains Emilie.

The team of Infirmiers de Rue is surprised by the speed of the process. Emilie testifies: “When a person enters this process, he or she becomes more self-confident, wants to visit the doctor again, to make new projects... And therefore we cannot limit our help to access to care”. Consequently, the method evolves. It is now about following up a limited number of people (40), but more intensively, until they find an accommodation where they feel good.

To achieve such a reintegration into society, three kinds of activities are implemented:
  • The follow-up itself, on the street first, in the accommodation afterwards: accompany the person when he or she goes to the doctor, make sure that he or she takes his or her treatment... Then, once the person lives in his or her accommodation, some volunteers visit him or her every two weeks.
  • The trainings, which are organized for all the professionals involved in the social and medical support and for the people who are in daily contact with the person. In these trainings, they learn how to simply talk about hygiene. They also ensure that everyone is feeling like a link of a guard and solidarity chain to support each person in extreme precariousness.
  • The creation of prevention tools and tools that highlight the possibilities given by the surroundings, such as posters explaining which behaviour one can adopt in case of intense cold.
Working on motivation is one of the association's focal points: to motivate the team, the whole network and, above all, the followed-up people who have to make significant efforts. Everyone owns a passport with a nice picture of himself or herself, a list of all of his or her talents and tastes (“really resourceful”, “likes gardening”, etc.) and, on the back, the medical objectives that the team of Infirmiers de Rue sets every week.

Two team seminars are organised every year, in order to continually improve the project and to reinforce the team cohesion. In 2013, the team plans to improve its support on finding an accommodation.



  • 40 people living on the street are followed-up every week. Between 60 and 70 people are followed-up every year.
  • About 30 people now live stable and autonomous in their own accommodation. 
  • 12 other people have their own accommodation but the team of Infirmiers de Rue still follows them up intensively, in order to support them in their transition to autonomy.

All these people spent 8 to 20 years on the street. When the team of Infirmiers de Rue starts to follow them up, they are really vulnerable and have a high death risk. At that moment, the professional network is often disheartened.
  • Brussels, a dense network of people and organizations works on this project.
  • More than 100 people are trained every year (mainly social workers, medical workers and security officers).
  • About 20 volunteers work on this project. Eight of them regularly visit people in their new accommodation. 13 professionals work in the team (all together, their workload is equivalent to 11 full-time jobs).


Between social and medical workers, shop owners, security officers, volunteers of all ages and people living on the street for years, extremely vulnerable and isolated.

              What can we learn from Emilie's experience?

  • How important diagnosis and empathy are. Emilie and her team-mates try to really understand the others (the homeless people and the professionals) and to take time to establish trust.
  • The team strength, the link between confidence (in oneself, in the others) and organization: the perpetuation of certain values in the team permits to establish an effective communication and a good coordination.
  • Everything is possible”. In the premises of Infirmiers de Rue, the atmosphere is relaxed. Emilie reveals the recipe: “Obviously we sometimes get bad news. Therefore we always try to remember all the things that work well. Everything is possible, but the person has to be supported and valued”.

For more information, visit the website of Infirmiers de Rue

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