Expert article
Project
A Place to Be-Come Seraing, Belgium
Edit 24 February 2022
by Francesca Ansaloni UIA Expert

Co-designing a new day-shelter to improve access to low-threshold care in Seraing’s central neighbourhoods

Seraing - A Place to Be-Come project
The site of the future day-shelter
In Seraing, two shelters welcome people experiencing homelessness or great discomfort associated with instable and precarious conditions of life. The night-shelter has existed for twenty years to accommodate individuals in emergency situations, while the day-shelter was opened later with the purpose of providing hospitality and assistance to anyone in need during the day. Today, the premises of the day-shelter meet neither its beneficiaries’ needs nor staff members’ requirements, and services supplied are constrained by inadequate facilities. In this context, the A Place To Be-Come project intervenes by investing funds into a new building which is expected to offer more suitable spaces and ameliorate the hospitality and the quality of services that are provided. The construction works will start in spring of 2022, but the design process of the future day-shelter has been taking some time in a collective effort of analysis and reflection.

In the Walloon region, the system of care that supports people experiencing or at risk of homelessness includes emergency services, like day and night shelters. Shelters are very common in the area and their main goal is to help people regain their autonomy, but most often they channel assistance in the short term. Despite extremely challenging missions, these centres are often underfunded and understaffed, and face many difficulties linked to the temporary nature of the service, the lack of long-term solutions and the absence of a platform for an efficient coordination with other systems of care, such as health and housing systems, inter alia. Most of individuals hosted in a night-shelter do not have a permanent address and many are recurrent users of emergency aid services, as they add up different problems (housing, health issues, addictions, psychological fragility…). In Wallonia, in 2020, the at-risk-of-poverty rate was 18,2%, meaning that almost one resident on five lived in a household with an income below the poverty line.[1] In 2020, more than 116.000 individuals accessed an emergency shelter, of which most were men aged 18-49 years: of them, half (22,6%) has no income, while 55,1% receive some social and healthcare benefits[2]. Often, the users of emergency shelters have such complex and urgent troubles that job search is not a priority.

In Seraing, as it was described in the first journal, main data on precariousness and poverty are well below regional average and the analysis carried out on the existing day-shelter[3] emphasises that a quarter of the recipients of financial assistance in relation to social security (RIS)[4] comes from the central neighbourhood, which represents only 10% of the entire population of Seraing. Socio-economic indicators show a fragile and deprived city, especially with regard to its central neighbourhoods, which explains the presence of a night-shelter and a day relais to ensure continuity in the assistance from night to day to the most vulnerable people.


[1] IWEPS. Les chiffres-clés de la Wallonie [2021] available at https://ediwall.wallonie.be/iweps-les-chiffres-cles-de-la-wallonie-2021-numerique-085563

[2] Data can be found at https://www.iweps.be/indicateur-statistique/accueil-de-jour-bas-seuil-realise-services-partenaires-relais-sociaux/

[3] With the aim to identify problems and opportunities in relation to the provision of social services in Seraing and in particular of the existing day shelter, partners from APTBC conducted a survey that mobilised social actors, staff members of the shelter and beneficiaries. The results can be found here (in French).

[4] Integration income, in French “Revenu d’Intégration Sociale”.

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A night-shelter for people experiencing homelessness has been running in Seraing for twenty years. In response to an emerging need, the existing day-shelter opened in 2009 to offer people in distress a place to rest during the day. Initially, the shelter stayed open only during winter months, then its opening period was extended from September to July. Today, its role is not only to welcome the homeless, but to ensure that everybody in need and facing precariousness can find there a professional with whom to address their problems, may it be of housing, administrative procedures, relational issues, debt management, health…As Laetitia Di Maira, the shelter director, points out[1]:

Many people who live precarious lives may still have a place to stay, but often precariousness depends on housing conditions: it is not unusual that accommodations have no water nor heating; or that people are not capable of paying the bills….

In 2019, the day-shelter welcomed 8.447 people from January to December, except in August when it was closed. The rate of 79,2% of men and 20,8% of women is consistent with data in the Walloon region for access to emergency services, as well as the prevailing age group, between 30 and 39 years. Most of them accumulate hardships that originate from personal hardships, mental illnesses, addiction, over-indebtedness, domestic conflicts, and social marginalisation. According to staff members, three categories of users are welcomed: those who have found a stable condition but continue to visit the shelter to maintain social relations and find support with administrative issues; those who are in an irregular situation, without a permit, and come to eat, get warm and participate to activities but find no solution to their main problem; those who, often coming from the night-shelter, look for help to find accommodation and fix their precarious situation.

To address the needs and the requests of day-shelter’s users, the service is organised around the idea that anyone is welcomed inside to re-energise oneself, socialise, recover or find orientation toward other services. The day-shelter is open from Monday to Friday, 9 to 12 am and 1 to 5 pm; it provides shower and laundry facilities, a soup kitchen, support from social workers and educators, assistance on employment and training search, housing and administrative procedures; it also offers the possibility to participate to activities, trips and briefing sessions organised by partners.

Staff members are a director, a social worker and two educators. Their mission is to help anyone knocking on the door by addressing their needs in the immediate and possibly in the longer term: “We have a broad mission, but on a daily basis it is a case-by-case”, Di Maira says. They face growing difficulties linked to an increase in requests for assistance over the years. Furthermore, requests come from a population whose problems are more and more layered and deep-rooted, making it more challenging to help solve them. In Di Maira’s words,

The problem with contemporary society is that every person must fit into a predefined box (…). It is our mission to help anyone who needs it to refocus her or his path without being stigmatised for not being in the right box.

However, their work “includes a permanent risk of failure. Many of those we encounter and help, they come one or two years later with more serious problems to fix”.


[1] Interview with Laetitia Di Maira (7 June 2021)

The existing day-shelter is a two-story building with limited separation of activities, from the most collective ones to the activities that need more intimacy, for both employers and guests. This condition discourages new comers and facilitates occupation by regular visitors, while also generating small conflicts. Today, visitors are welcomed in the same room where others may be chatting, resting or having their coffee, which is also the same room where more formal activities may take place. The multiplicity of uses may be, in this case, annoying and conflictive, thus reducing the positive impact of educators’ work with beneficiaries and the comfort of a place that is supposed to be friendly and restful. For these reasons, the actual day-shelter is not suited to meeting the needs of its beneficiaries and the working staff and its relocation has been included in A Place To Be-Come project as one of the investments and part of an overall social inclusion strategy.

The new shelter is going to be built on a large brownfield once occupied by a blast furnace called HF6, where an urban renovation programme is expected to develop in the next years. The site was identified as appropriate because it offered two opportunities: a vacant land owned by the city of Seraing on the edge of the brownfield and, most of all, an ambitious plan for the development of a new mixed neighbourhood on a brownfield near to the city centre. The idea was that the future development would have to engage with the day-shelter and integrate it in its planning scheme, from both an urban and a socio-economic perspective.

With the aim to conceive a day-shelter more in line with the needs of beneficiaries and staff, a preliminary study was conducted in 2020 which identified the main issues faced by the actual day-shelter and existing services. The survey, which included interviews with stakeholders and beneficiaries, concluded that access to housing, medical care and mental health care, administrative support for residence permit, and socio-professional integration are the most urgent demand among people living in precariousness. In relation to the relocation of the day shelter, one issue has emerged in relation to the neighbourhood where the new shelter is going to be built. Some respondents said that it is more isolated and were afraid of feeling insecure because it of its reputation for drug dealing and connected incidents, while those with a history of addiction expressed concerns over risks associated with this very proximity. Many recommendations have been made with respect to the design of the building itself and new possible services, of which the following:

  • A large space for the reception area
  • Great visibility for staff members, with no blind spots
  • Rooms for one-on-one interviews
  • A room for people to rest
  • A storage room
  • A kitchen
  • Improved restrooms and laundry
  • Lockers
  • IT room
  • A design that enhance the perception of safety

Based on the results of the survey, a collective work was carried out with the purpose of defining the specification of the new building and meet identified needs in view of all constraints, such as budget limitations. The plan that was finally approved includes a reception, three offices, one common lounge for rest and one for socialising, with a bar and a kitchen, toilets and four showers separated for men and women, a loggia, two gardens, a parking for a Medibus[1], lockers and storage rooms.

The plan of the new day-shelter
Ground floor of the new day-shelter (Credits SYNERGIE Architecture + JML Lacasse Monfort sprl; City of Seraing)

According to Di Maira, the co-design approach encouraged the entire team of the day shelter to reconsider their work, priorities and challenges:

The APTBC team came with some ideas for the project, we came with our knowledge of the field and throughout the collective process we ended up with a balance and mutual enrichment that generated the final project. We benefited from each other

This work is expected to produce some relevant improvements on what the existing shelter could offer.

  • First, the infrastructure is improved.It will be a one-story building, which will facilitate a lot the accessibility for many people. Moreover, the organisation of the ground floor, with a space dedicated to each of their main activities, will simplify the daily routine and schedule and it will make users feel more comfortable, increasing the perception of safety.
  • Second, the implicit message. By building a brand new shelter, the municipality is telling people in precarious conditions that they matter and they have a place in their city.
  • Third, the localisation. Despite some concerns over the new location, there are also some advantages. The new building is going to be erected in an area that is withdrawn by potential sources of conflict: the area is next to the city centre but is quieter and less densely populated, so they expect to be able to manage neighbours’ possible complaints more easily. Moreover, the new localisation will make it possible to have outdoor space, which was impossible in the dense city centre. In the future, a new neighbourhood will be built here and its planning will have to take into account the day shelter, therefore if some issues arise they would be dealt with properly in the context of an urban transformation process.
Some 3D views of the new day-shelter
Some 3D views of the future day-shelter (Credits SYNERGIE Architecture + JML Lacasse Monfort sprl; City of Seraing)

[1] The Medibus is a mobile unit that can get close the most vulnerable people who can’t have access to healthcare. Medibus is part of the APTBC project, through which the mobile unit will be acquired. Besides the investment, a work of support with the implementation of the Medibus project has been carried out by APTBC partners (the city of Seraing, CPAS, Arebs).

The future day-shelter will be less isolated when the new neighbourhood will be developed. Despite its being at the border of APTBC target area, it is strategically positioned near to the parc des Marêts, which is one of the public parks on which the project is focusing through its improvement, revitalisation and the creation of space for the community to gather, meet and collaborate on new projects. This space is going to be a modular building located at a secondary entrance of the parc des Marêts and is expected to promote activities for the socio-professional integration of citizens and skills acquisition. Its proximity with the future day-shelter could be the opportunity to draw relations between one existing community and a community-to-be, co-design activities, booster inclusion processes and mobilise a variety of people, thus making the park a strategic point of connection between the central neighbourhoods and the future urban development. Works for the shelter are due to start in Spring 2022, while works for the modular building in the park should begin at the end of 2022, leaving the time for advancing a dynamic process of engagement and mobilisation of resources, both human and material, that encourages citizens to actively take care of their neighbourhood.

The pre-existing front
A team meeting at the site of the future day-shelter © Author

 

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