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#PourEux: When the confined cook for the homeless

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Kate Gallagher

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Since the start of the quarantine in Belgium, the homeless population have found themselves in a situation even more uncertain than usual. A new Facebook group #PourEux Bruxelles (#ForThem Brussels) brings together over 2000 citizens who cook and deliver meals by bike for the homeless, in compliance with hygiene regulations.

Yesterday, I made a spinach quiche. Being confined at home means cooking a lot. But having bought too much spinach, I had the choice between letting it go off in the fridge within a few days, or eating it over and over again. Then a third option pops to my mind: I decide to make another one. My partner grimaces as I tell him. “But this one I’m making for the homeless.” He immediately goes to stock up on eggs and pastry dough to complete the mission.

Two weeks ago, I was invited to Facebook group for solidarity in my city. At the start of the coronavirus crisis, the people of Brussels rallied to gather cooks and bicycle delivery volunteers to feed the city’s homeless, in a group called #PourEux ("For Them") Brussels. The principle is simple: citizens like me cook one or two extra portions, fill in a form and a delivery person comes to pick up the meals to bring them to someone in need.

As I slip a tablespoon of butter into my spinach, I wonder how it all works. How are the delivery people organised? I saw in a post that more than 200 meals had been delivered over the Easter weekend. Is that enough, or too little? As soon as my delivery person arrives, they will be showered with questions.

Confinement is not possible without housing

In Brussels, the estimated number of homeless people was 4187 according to the last calculation by Bruss’help at the end of 2018. This figure not only includes homeless people who sleep in the street or in emergency residential centres (which makes up 51.4%), but also those housed in shelters, temporary accommodation, or squats. This figure has quadrupled over the last ten years. Despite many associations responding every day to help the most disadvantaged, it is difficult to cover everyone in need.

In the Belgian capital, NGOs such as the Red Cross, Restos du Coeur and charities like Belgium Kitchen Solidarity or Bulle feed homeless people as much as they can. But since mid-March, confinement has jeopardised support initiatives. Despite the fact that some charities like the Red Cross have strengthened their action to make up for the shortfalls, reduced teams, or temporary restrictions on certain number of reception services make the situation even more difficult.

The first #PourEux Facebook group was created in Paris on 18th March, led by Allan Ballester. Since then, other cities in France and Quebec have followed suit. In Brussels, the Facebook group was launched by Francois Halleux; who is already involved in the Brussels aid sector as the founder of 100 PAP beer, the profits of which are used to provide housing for undocumented migrants, among other initiatives. On the evening of 28th March, he created the group on a whim, invited his friends to take part, and discovered that in just a few days more than 2000 people had joined the movement.

A collective and individual effort

While the quiche is baking in the oven, I fill out the online cooks’ form. I provide my address, the dish I have prepared and the number of portions. As it is past 5 P.M., so tomorrow a delivery person will contact me to pick up the parcel. I pack the two portions into plastic containers kept from a takeaway, which I have washed, rewashed and disinfected. At the very beginning of the form, it is clearly stated: “The hygiene measures outlined below are essential for our movement to function properly and are compulsory to take part. Are you able and willing to respect them?” When the first #PourEux Facebook group was created, Allan Ballester created an agreement for cooks and delivery people, which is now used by all the other cities replicating the model.

The next day, after receiving a text to notify me, Alice arrives on her bike outside my home at 5:30 P.M. I go out to give her the package, whilst maintaining a safe distance. Alice loads everything into her bike bags, and while she adjusts her mask and helmet, she agrees to arrange a phone call so that I can ask her a few questions.

Being surrounded by charity and solidarity networks through her studies and relatives, Alice became aware of the #PourEux movement early on. When her work in hospitality was stopped because of the coronavirus, she contacted one of the Facebook group’s administrators to volunteer as a delivery person. She then joined a WhatsApp group as well as a Google Docs system that lists all the available meals and their locations. Every day at 12 P.M., the organisers record all the food parcels offered by the cooks on this document. The delivery riders then write their names next to the orders that they can take care of, along with the areas they can deliver to.

“Last night, for example, I saw that there were three orders in the neighbourhoods of Ixelles and Saint Gilles. This is a convenient route for me, so I contacted the three people to confirm that I would come and at what time - and that’s it," she told me. "I had 18 meals to deliver altogether and I did a route by Horta, past the Jacques Franck cultural centre, the Saint-Gilles square and then the Albert station.” To better target the delivery areas, the delivery people use the chart provided by homeless aid support centre Bruss’Help, which lists the help available on a daily basis during the COVID-19 crisis.

How many Alices are needed to feed the city?

With more than 4000 homeless people, a large majority of whom do not have their basic needs met by an organisation, how many people like Alice would be needed to feed everyone? Veronica, spokesperson for the group, tells me that the movement replies on only around 100 delivery people, almost all on bikes, except for about five cars which take care of transporting unsold crates of food and exceptionally large orders. On average, around 400 meals are delivered each day through the #PourEux Brussels group. Included in this figure is the significant contribution of parcels coming from professional chefs who are no longer working during the confinement period and who offer their services free of charge. Thanks to the collection of unsold goods, they can guarantee large orders of 50 to 100 meals in one go.

For Bruss’Help, which links all the various initiatives, it is difficult to assess the total number of meals distributed by the different contributors. The chart they set up lists around ten food aid points across the city operated by charities such as Bulle, the Red Cross, the Restos du Coeur and Solidarité Grand Froid. They are, however, certain that the need still persists and that “all help from citizens is welcome.” When the confinement period is behind us and life gradually resumes its course, the charities who provide aid will resume their projects in full to help the most disadvantaged. Will the #PourEux movement also be essential then? Especially as cooks and delivery people find their way back to their full-time jobs.

"Each meal has been made with love for the recipient"

For Francois Halleux, the action of #PourEux Brussels has every chance of continuing after the crisis; because of the reality of the situation on the streets and continuing needs, but also, he believes, because the movement brings with it an essential personal touch. “The homeless see a volunteer come to them with a package with little messages on it and sometimes drawings and nice things. There is this compassionate side which is especially important to them. Each meal has been made with love for the recipient. This is feedback I have received myself. I have a friend who received bread and jam with some orange juice and fruit, and he said to me ‘I’m sure this person thought of me when they prepared it.’”

For Veronica, who had been a delivery person before becoming a spokesperson for the organization, the feedback from the homeless is unanimous: “They thank us again and again. They are constantly treated like outcasts, so they are happy with the slightest thing that is brought to them, and they always ask if we will be coming back. We try to pay attention to dietary requirements too, which makes them happy.”

While chatting with Alice, Veronica and Melanie; a former Deliveroo employee who became a #PourEux volunteer, their warmth and passion radiates. “We don’t get into long conversations, but it makes them happy to exchange a few words, a smile…” Alice tells me. For Melanie, the people she drops these meals off to “are more expressive or chattier than others, whilst some like to share a laugh, but they are all as human as each other.” When she began taking part in the initiative, she wrote a short report on how she felt about this new movement.

On the Facebook group, more and more people are not only offering their cooking skills, but are also sharing tips for best practices in regards to food containers and hygiene. Some are offering to make masks and visors for those delivering on bikes. For as long as it may continue, confinement will have brought a little positivity to some people.

Feature photo by: Mélanie, former Deliveroo deliverer and current #PourEux volunteer.

Story by

Léa Marchal

Babélienne depuis 2018, je suis désormais éditrice pour le nouveau média, et journaliste freelance dans les affaires européennes. J'ai piloté la série d'articles multimédia Generation Yerevan, ainsi que le podcast Soupe à l'Union, publiés sur Cafébabel.

Translated from #PourEux : quand les confinés cuisinent pour les sans-abris