Here she is, Miss Homeless Belgium

Can a pageant put a face on a tragic problem?

By Lynn Harris
October 14, 2009 6:15PM (UTC)
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This week in iffy pageants: Miss Homeless Belgium. The prize -- won by 58-year-old Therese Van Belle, is ... a home. One year, anyway, in a rent-free apartment. (What’d the others get? Turtle Wax?)

The pageant's goal, as reported, was to bring attention to the plight of the country's homeless. But -- really? Contestants were required to give a talk about the importance of ending homelessness demonstrating their "will to get themselves out of a difficult situation." And, as pageant organizer Aline Duportail said, "It was about the contestants' inner strength and determination to get themselves out of their old life and on a new path."


Irony can be a stinging gadfly, for sure. The idea here could be pretty clever, to the degree that this pageant might -- by putting real, live faces on the problem -- spur Belgians, and the powers that be, to take up the cause. Especially given that -- despite the fact that the right to shelter is "enshrined in the [country's] constitution" -- the problem of homelessness is reportedly taken up in the Belgian media only cursorily (around Christmas), any off-season attention to it is likely a good thing.

So I'm sure the organizers' hearts are in the right place, but their message is a little off. (Unless I'm missing some complex meta-irony, in which case their message is still off.) Rewarding the individuals’ "will" and "determination," while nice, pretty much leaves "the system" off the hook. (Analog: Coaching women, rather than businesses, on "work-life" balance.) "Inner strength"? These people need a fucking house.  

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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