The Fraternal Space in Liege
A collective transitional habitat ?
Pascale Thys, 2009
In 1987, the project took off, after a meeting between homeless people with squatting experiences and Germain Dufour who was having trouble paying his rent because he had no income at that time.
At the beginning there were 8 people, but soon there were 14, because it was difficult to say no to others. Between 3 and 5 people stayed in each room. « It was like some kind of organized squatting . Each in turn did the cleaning ; roommates would go to the shops to get the unsold items ; drinking was forbidden in the house ; sexual intercourse was allowed ; you could bring your own furniture ; …
Very soon a second house, located right next to the first one, was rented in order to be able to answer all the requests, and especially to alleviate the « surcharge ".
Both houses, located at 44-46 rue Volière, are rented to the city. Today, one houses 3 people and the other 5 people.
In 1994 an old school, at n° 1 rue Volière, was invested and rented 250 € to a private person with a 27 year long lease. Fifteen people (including Germain Dufour) live there. The first floor has been refurbished by the tenants as housing and common areas and : the ground floor is sublet to Médecin Sans Frontière , the refectory in the courtyard hosts the Thermos operation from October to April , every Wednesday lunchtime the Krishna community organizes a meal in the courtyard.
The place has been renamed Fraternal Space, which shows that the project is larger than just having a shelter.
For a few years now a house in poor condition has been rented, for 25€, near Tournai in a small village of 400 inhabitants. It can accommodate 3 to 4 people. It is mainly used for environmental projects (e.g. offering its services to farmers for various small jobs), but most of the current tenants of the 3 houses in rue Volière do not like the countryside. Here there is no permanent housing, except with farmers.
The idea of organizing a collective project (of the neighbourhood service type, EFT) has been studied, but this has not been possible because the public - except for a few people - is too damaged, too mobile and needs first to rebuild its social and psychological health.
For a year now, thanks to one of the residents, birthdays have been celebrated on the last Fridays of the month at Rue Volière.
Type of public
They’re mostly men from the streets. For the 3 houses there are 1/3 alcoholics, 1/3 drug addicts and 1/3 undocumented migrants.
Around the school there are people squatting in the shelters, but not included in the « official » tenants and there is a list of 10 residents for the address.
The people emigrating to the CPAS are considered as co-residents.
Access conditions and motivation
When a place becomes available, it is Germain Dufour who currently makes the decision to accept or not accept a new one. The requests are numerous, he refuses about two people a day. But the selection is mainly done by word of mouth. Indeed, the places and living conditions are known by the people in the street.
The main motivations are not to sleep outside, and not to live alone ("~what kills the person is the fact of being alone~").
You stay as long as you want and you can come back once or twice as long as you want.
Mode of operation
« At first we imagined that life would teach us the rules ". But very quickly many questions arose concerning for example cleaning, making meals, dealing with problems due to violence, …
A decision-making meeting is held every week. At one time everything was voted (such as exclusions or the arrival of new members), but it was not possible to continue due to the renewal of the group and the fact that there is no support structure.
There are no written rules, but there are rules expressed orally. Each time a new rule has appeared it is as a result of a problem that has arisen.
As regards the tenants of the school, we can mention for example that: once every fortnight, each person is responsible for cleaning the premises, collecting unsold goods, cooking and washing up.
A serious problem of violence can lead to exclusion (sometimes a transfer to another house is organized).
One does not go to other people’s rooms, unless one is invited there for emotional reasons.
Everyone has a key.
Everyone is independent and free, but no noise between 11pm and 7am.
There is no doorbell, we call from the courtyard.
Alcohol is forbidden, except beer in the rooms and this individually.
There is no ban on drugs if it is done in one’s room, but no psychotropic drugs. No drug dealing from the house.
Joint is allowed in communal areas.
On the financial level the contribution to the charges for both houses varies between 80 and 90€/month/person and the one for the school is 100€/month. But with a certain flexibility according to personal cases (leaving prison, without papers, …) where we try to find another formula, such as credit or finding an external sponsor who pays a financial participation.
Animals are allowed if they are compatible with the dog and cat already living there.
Types of social support
There is no support structure.
Germain Dufour spends 15 minutes each week in the 2 houses and lives in the school 4 days/week because there are more newcomers. According to him, listening is important.
The tenants know much better than him where they can find help.
Mixing between populations
In the three habitats there are 1/3 alcoholics, 1/3 drug addicts (the owners do not accept this kind of public), and 1/3 undocumented migrants (often without income). At the moment there are not many alcoholics because the CPAS takes care of them (hence the increase of the other two groups).
There are no people who are too damaged at the psychiatric level.
In both houses there are no drug addicts because there is a lot of wood (danger of fire) and out of respect for the neighbours.
Currently there are only men. At times there are also women, but this is not constant. For example : for some time a prostitute helped to give a certain balance : ; a battered woman also came by, but she fell in love with another tenant and it ended badly and she left ; there was also a couple with a child (rule : no children over five years old).
It is difficult for a woman to live among so many men and especially to be careful that she is not used by them (for example: prostitution to get drugs).
Outside people come by from time to time. Like, for example, that neighbour, a former teacher, who comes to have breakfast, or that person with a car who helps to pick up the vegetables after the market, and also many schools (rhetoric). In addition to their help, these people bring another kind of conversation.
For Germain Dufour the number of 14 people is not to be exceeded for cohabitation.
He also raises the question of gender mixing. For him, the idea of living all together (for example: Christian, Muslim, straight, gay, …) is an ideal, but it is perhaps not the right solution. Perhaps we should return to a single audience, but this raises the problem of the ghetto and the introduction of a mini-structure.
Type of solution
This varies from a few weeks to several years. There are a few people who have been living there for several years.
In 2003, eight people took over an apartment, but few drug addicts.
The scheme « my housing my independence » is not valid for a small percentage of people who need collective housing. This experience of collective housing is interesting from the psychological (for example : in case of crisis one spends less time in a café and suffers less from heavy dependence) and economic points of view. There is a care for each other (for good and bad).
This type of experience is also coupled with a battle of ideas concerning, in particular :
wanting injured people to show society how much they’ve been hurt ;
being in favour of hard drug distribution, as in other countries (which would prevent some delinquency);
prostitutes and their clients, what are they looking for?;
why prohibit panhandling (also prevents theft), which is a source of contact and creativity.
This experience also shows that it is possible to use abandoned school-type and other buildings and transform them into housing, to make a nest in them. This is preferable to fully equipped houses.