The Winter action
Every day at Wanteraktioun, “homeless” walk into the lunchroom from the main entrance. They begin at noon. A guard let come in five people at the time. They stop at the check desk where they are registered and given a ticket. They are rescued from hanging around aimlessly during the coldest months.
If one arrives from the Luxembourg city central train station, it takes no more than ten minutes walking to reach the day center in Dernier Sol, Bonnevoie, the “Wanteraktioun.” Operated by the Luxembourg Red Cross, Inter-Action, and Caritas, the center in Bonnevoie is opened from the 1st of December to the end of March. In this place, people living in a condition of extreme social distress come to have hot meals and stay warm in the afternoon, (they can watch TV, take some rest, charge mobile phones).
They are often mentioned (in news items or press releases) as homeless or with more reassuring terms such guests and clients. “Homeless” is evocative of clochard (closely referring to the ones who sleep on a bench with a bottle of wine in hand, wrapped up in heavy blankets), while guests and clients bring a temporary sense of impermanence, but permanence is a real issue at stake, and many are living in enduring conditions of poverty. The most appropriate definition for the many stories of marginalization is “socially excluded” as a shorthand for “socially not-included.”
It is quite essential to make a distinction: there is a form of self-marginalization (depending on oneself) and a form of social-marginalization (depending on social laws, rules, and restrictions). The term “homeless” is misleading, for it tends to flatten, making less extreme the difference between “les clochards” and migrants, that is, the difference between self-marginalized people and social-marginalized people.
Winter Action service is run mostly by volunteers, trained and supervised by the Red Cross staff. On Tuesday, there is a medical service from 1 to 3 o clock, and on Tuesday and Friday, there is a staff of nurses from Red Cross that provides first aid assistance and address, in case, sick people to medical centers or specialists. There is no doubt from the very beginning that anybody of the staff is doing the best—the very best—to prevent this labor from becoming an “out of control” activity.
The way Luxembourg Red Cross approaches social seclusion is impressive and touching. They put the extreme cure in selecting the ones who have a chance of getting rid of poverty, stepping out from a hopeless life, mental stress-strain and apathy. Red Cross, Caritas, and Inter-Action coordinate an interdisciplinary work for making social integration at hand, far beyond the rigid and confused patterns of integration among European laws and procedures.
My contact at the center is Thierry Hansen the volunteer service coordinator, together with Seneca Raimondi and Melany De Muur. They work for the Croix Rouge, in the “Abricoeur” section, which is part of the Department of Social Help (Aides Sociales) whose director is Patrick Salvi, inside the largest sector of Solidarity of the National Red Cross.
Members of the staff, volunteers, and some guards use English, or a very simplified French and some of them look happy to exchange some words in Italian in the dialogue with me, a proof, if proofs were needed, of Luxembourg remarkable independence from the current and obsolete one -country – one –population approach, among other European states. In Luxembourg, you can switch fromFrench into English, from German into Spanish, Italian and Portuguese in a single conversation. If you only speak Arabic, you can get an interpreter who usually translates into French.
At no time, there anything non-empathetic in the conduct of staff members. They move efficiently among the needs and the unpredictable events and tales of suffering. Their manner toward homeless is always beyond reproach. They are good and honest people, young and eager to help and none of them yields to the temptations to play-act in this setting.
The first day Thierry tells me “how difficult is to keep guests mentally engaged and occupied”. It is even problematic to play chess, he says. In these conditions, in fact, continuity between individual and social agency is interrupted.
There is a large and cleaned counter where volunteers are serving food, providing trays, plates, and cutlery. The very first day, I pick up my tray, my dish, and have a bowl of soup, a slice of bread, and sit at the table quietly, in front of a man who speaks English. I try to start a frank conversation, but he stops me. He doesn’t want to tell a stranger about his life. He doesn’t want to speak. I leave him in his tired eating and change my place. Another young man, when I tell him I am a philosopher, bursts into a laugh and asks me if I have a place to stay, a place where to sleep and he suggests me Findel, near the Luxembourg airport.
A security guard approaches me and asks how it goes. He’s a very kind and civil person, and I try to tell him who I am. A philosopher, a counselor, coming from Denmark doing some research on normality and human resilience, in my field of philosophical practice. He asks me if I had my food. I can see he believes I am a “guest”. At first, I am quite surprised, but I prefer to let this disambiguation go on, for there is no ambiguity. Differences only exist on papers.
The distance, in fact, between “guests” and staff members or volunteers is defined by symbols, as the identification tags hanging from the neck, or logos that are sewn on the shirt. Staff members and volunteers wear gloves. These blue-colored rubber gloves, which are supposed to be hygienic prevention, allude, with no circumlocutions, to a social barrier.
Propinquity rather than togetherness.
Life in the center is more a propinquity of shipboard, rather than a community of intents. The interruption of continuity between individual and social agency is highlighted by the infecundity of planning structures. People are moving alongside each other, avoiding“bumping”into each other,but yet they still are not engaged in any of the relevant sense of acting together. They have lost the structure of the social world and the notion of “shared cooperative agency”. No one of the “guests” would show up saying that there are free armchairs in the chill-out area and the movie of the day is Star Wars. Each acts alone.
There is no internet access or wi-fi connection. It seems something of minor importance, but if we consider that life, social life, is nowadays to have internet access and to receive and send messages, to read laws, rules and regulations, to find administrative offices, to seek job offers, to create one’s own job, to build a blog or a website, to stay in contact and to create a social network of any kind, to read the news being informed of what is going on in the social world, if we try to reflect on all these implications, then the lack of internet access (maybe started as a simple oversight), becomes a state of social seclusion.
Continuity between individual and social agency is interrupted inasmuch, by losing social obligation and social rights (what Searle calls deontic powers), the external reality is no more a place of interaction. The social world is secluded, becoming inaccessible. They are handicapped in planning any joint- activity.
After a period of social seclusion and the constant stress of having no role in the society, they cross the mental stress-strain limit. The outcome is a loss of mental elasticity and (using engineering terms)
a somewhat confinement in a zone of plastic deformation, where the subject is not supposed to reverse itself to an original status when external forces are removed (poverty, unemployment, no stable residence, lack of parental roles, no social status). Some real clochards prefer to live in the street instead of having a bed. Having lost resilience, they do not respond to external stimulations in the same way as ordinary persons do. There is a sort of permanent deformation, which manifests itself with a growing disproportion between what one plans to do and what one manages to do.
Mental elastic capacity to reverse to the original status is kept in efficiency by the authentic memory of consciousness. In this case, memory stands for recollecting the correct sequence of events needed for undertaking such a specific task. By doing this, the subject “knows” what is at stake between the intention and the conditions of satisfaction (that a certain state of affairs is the case). What the subject knows, is not a simple actual sequence of events, but rather a subjective sense (Sinn) of events, of what is going to do. A clochard, becomes a clochard, after living in extreme conditions for too long, after which a normal life does not make any sense. What in this case people miss is the experience. It is through to the constant experiencing that the mind-body balance is maintained. Experience stands for the content of thoughts for the “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind” Kant KRV (A51/B76). In Kant’s conception intuition is the starting point for all cognition. The empiric material. The experience.
The majority of these “guests-clients-homeless” are like anybody else, dressed like anybody else and very cared for in appearance. Speaking, here, is about exchanging short information. Most men act mechanically. They are tired, sleepy, for in the big dormitory in Findel, is not that easy to sleep enough. Entrance in Findel is permitted from 7 pm to 11 pm. They can eat something, take a hot shower and sleep in and 120 places bunk bed dormitory. After lights out at 11 pm, security guards keep watch throughout the night.
A refectory serves food from 7 am, and all residents are asked to leave not later than 9 am. A free shuttle bus service brings guests downtown. In Findel 80 volunteers are in charge.
There are very few episodes of playacting. For example, people from east of Europe possess an unmistakable love for showmanship. One day, a tall Polish or Russian man, wearing military robes and looking like a straggler, with military rubber boots, collapsed slowly on the floor, presumably under the effect of alcohol. Another day a man with crutches began screaming and self- inflicting wounds with a knife.
Several people do not suffer from alcohol and drug addiction. They didn’t have a breakdown, and they are not mentally distressed. They are, instead, trapped between social laws and their stress-strain limit. If they stay for too long in this condition of social seclusion, then everything becomes difficult.
People move from one place to another with all their possessions. A rucksack and a front sack (usually with the computer) a bag filled with cables and plugs and chargers. A big plastic bag with some food, clothes, and paper files, like documents, addresses, etc. All that they have. A definite sign of distinction between homeless and ordinary people is plastic bags.
Plugs, phone chargers, small cables, batteries, are the new coin. The energy supply is a constant worry, more important than eating. They exchange phone chargers, they need to find a plug rather than food.
On the 24th and 25th of February, Saturday and Sunday, a job-interview is offered to the ones who intend to find a job. Seneca Raimondi interviews in a staff room in front of the entrance desk. People are asked to come in one at the time. A long queue is waiting in silent in the hallway. Before the job interview, a volunteer adjusts beard and hair and asks to choose a hair-cut style from a magazine. Afterward, the interview takes place. There is a woman who makes up and combs hair. A professional photographer, a volunteer, takes professional pictures and right before to take a picture the guests are asked to put on a shirt and a jacket, to make the photo more professional. A young man makes the interpreter from Russian into English, and another man translates from Arabic into French. The final resume will be set up according to with the standards from the Minister of Labor Employment and the social solidarity economy. Each CV file will be available on a browser and ready to be printed anytime, almost anywhere at request within the Red Cross and Caritas, Inter-Action and Street Work network system.
The first is a young man looking for a job as a waiter or warehouse worker. Tunisian nationality. He has neither an email address nor a telephone number. From 2010 to 2014 he attended l’ école primaire. Seneca asks what did he do from 2014. He worked in a building site with bathroom fixture and air conditioning. In 2016, he arrived in Italy. He worked on a building site with his cousin. A family-company. In 2017, he moved to France. Seneca concerns that “the story” be realistic, with no contradictions. In 2018, he arrived in Luxembourg by train. He likes football and does not possess a driving license.
The second person is from Algeria and needs an interpreter from Arabic. He is a young man. He applied for asylum in Luxembourg seven months ago. Algeria is among the countries acknowledged
for asylum seekers. From 2004-2007 he attended the primary school. Afterward, he worked with the family as a mechanic in Algeria and then in a restaurant. “Do you have the name of the restaurant?” Seneca asks, just to make the resume more realistic. Continuing the story, he went from Algeria to Nice, France in 2016 and after he moved to Luxembourg where he applied for asylum. He likes to play football, and he is in the Caritas football team.
A very young man is only seventeen years old. He is from Morocco and has applied for asylum. He has an address in foyer St. Antoine, for asylum seekers led by Caritas. He has a portable phone number. He attended primary and secondary school in Morocco for six years. After working as a mechanic in Casablanca in 2015, he went to Spain, where he made the harvest of tomatoes over six months. After, he decided to go to Marseille. He was sent by the police to a center for minors for two months. In 2015, he went to Germany. No work -permit. The authorities addressed him to a school program, but he had to work and send the money to his family, and therefore he got a job in black in a warehouse for one year, thanks to a family from Morocco. After one year he went to Belgium and then he arrived in Luxembourg.
Another man, 20 years old, from Algeria, speaks excellent German. He is a house painter.
Seneca switches from French to German, into English and Portuguese with incredible easiness and fluidity. During the many interviews, I find out that Italian has become one of the leading languages among immigrants and refugees throughout Europe.
A 35-year old man is an engineer; another one is graduated in Economy.
The interviews follow one another and life stories emerge with impressive vividness from the poor talks. To build a resume is a good way to make people reconnect with their self-narration.
Most of these people are like trapped within a contradiction: to get a job one needs a residence, but with no residence permit, one does not get any job. From this contradiction, clandestine state of being emerges. It means that clandestine state is an artificial invention to give an account for rejecting the ones who are living in Europe, that are part of our reality, impossible to ignore. It is like to stop a storm by law. It does not make any sense.
The first step is to find either a postcode or a fictive address. The second step is to get a job, maybe in black. The third step is to rent a room, for 600-700 euros per month. Some bars or coffee shops rent these rooms. In this way, one can get an address and try to find a more steady job. But to find a job one needs a social security number. To get it one has to make a declaration/registration of arrival at the Communal Administration. Whenever you visit a doctor or a public administration office, the social security number will be requested. As a non-EU citizen, one should have requested a residence permit as provided for by the amended law of 29 August 2008. To apply for a job to ADEM (Agence pour le development de l’emploi) you need a valid ID card and a European health assurance card. Caritas can offer some postal codes sometimes just to receive posts from the central administration and job employers.
At dawn of March 22, people in Findel dormitory watch the snow, covering fields everywhere, and the grey glooming sky, with a sense of joyful hope. One says “Snow. It’s snowing!”. Little sounds of satisfaction meander among people half asleep. They hope the dormitory will be taken opened for one or two weeks more. I did not know that even the dormitory in Findel would be closed on March 31th.
On March 31th, everything has been done during the winter is dismantled. The dormitory in Findel is closed, and the Winter Action in Bonnevoie closed. Only the ones with a social security number can find hospitality at the Ulysses dormitory of Caritas.
It means that all these people will be kindly sent “on the road again” (paraphrasing on an old song of Canned Heat). No meals, no places where to sleep, no money, nothing. People who have been seized upon from a status of social inexistence, treated as human beings, cared, fed and sheltered, trimmed and shaved, listened up to the illusion they could find a kind of job, out of sudden, are sent again into the non-social existence zone.
Food is about finding some places. Stemm vun der Strooss, in Rue de la Fonderie, provides food for 50 cents for a meal.
Some, very few indeed, can find a bed in Abrigado, in Rue de Thionville, a place focused on addiction, but according to with some of my acquaintances is quite a tough place where to sleep. The majority find shelter in the abandoned or under construction buildings. The problem with this solution is about groups and little clans. The group is perceived as a pack, difficult and dangerous to handle with. Groups sometimes deal with drugs, or in any case “do stupid things”. If one is arrested, it can be more and more complicated to find a decent life later.
The philosophical point about integration is the contradiction of knowing the other and denying it at the same time. I must admit that Luxembourg does not have the same approach of other countries, like Scandinavia or Italy, where it is usually tacitly and implicitly taken for granted that the hosting nation is culturally superior to the hosted population. There is no rational reason to assert that unless “superior” refers to a more attractive or stable economy. As a consequence, the better economy, makes the hosting nation to believe in being culturally superior. This sense of superiority might be generated by fear of diversity, for diversity may entail the obligation to expand one’s consciousness. Luxembourg, instead, is open to diversity, for this country is founded on diversity.
A young man from Senegal has been in Italy, before moving to Luxembourg. He speaks perfect Italian. He has been sheltered in a camp for immigrants with no documents and identity papers for one year. After this period, he has been given an Italian Identity Card and permission to stay. At this point, he couldn’t stay in the camp anymore and he had to find a job. But he was sent to school for a
while. With an Italian ID Card, he was no illegal at all, but with no steady residence, he couldn’t find a job. He moved to Luxembourg and applied for asylum, for in Luxembourg it takes three months while in Italy more than two years.
A man from Egypt talked with me for days about his project of building a website, his idea of making a business model by creating a platform on the internet. We spoke, and we spoke again, and in the end, I felt impotent since I couldn’t help him for we didn’t have any place where to simulate and develop this project.
I think that if they could just have a decent and efficient internet space, a computer room, where they could make CV, seeking for job offers, stay in contact and have online lesson on web hosting, computer program, w.p and website building, blog functioning, courses, some of them, not all of them, could start regaining a real contact with the real world, for the real world only exists in cyberspace nowadays.
During my experience in Wanteraktioun I made several acquaintances. One of these friends, a man from Nigeria, very well learned and educated, helped me in translating my website into French. He speaks perfect Italian and English, very good French and Luxembourgish, German and some Portuguese. He has a portable computer but he does not use it for it is pretty difficult to find a place with a connection, a printer, and a desk. Therefore, he made the translation handwritten, with a pencil, with very nice calligraphy. Like in the old days, fifty years ago. This man is far from his home country for twenty years, and he went to Italy, Germany, Spain, French, and Luxembourg. He’s living as a secluded social person in Luxembourg for three years. It is hard to say we are Europeans and he’s not, since he knows and speaks European languages and mentalities much better than many of us “ordinary” people.
Self-marginalization comes from drug addiction, alcohol problems, mental breakdowns, job-loss. Social-marginalization, instead, comes from a non-recognition of any social status. Le clochard, to some extent, has social status, while “illegal” migrants do not. In several cases, the former and the latter conditions are overlapped, and many migrants become self-marginalized after being social-marginalized for too long. It is a category mistake to dissolve social seclusion and self-marginalization distress under the general term of homeless. This case is built on how to give social existence − the only condition of human surviving− to the ones who left in search of a better world, and on how to avoid them of becoming self-excluded and mentally distressed.
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- Shelter from the storm– Bob Dylan
- On the road, again –Canned Heat