Stëmm vun der Strooss (which translates as “voice of the street”) is a non-profit association supporting people in need, particularly those who are homeless, unemployed, or struggling with addiction. Nikki Evans meets the inspirational woman behind the organisation.
It’s always done from the people, for the people – that’s the idea
Stëmm vun der Strooss’ stated mission is “social and professional integration”, which means that as well as helping people with their immediate practical needs, it creates opportunities for people in difficulties to gain skills and experience while doing useful work. People employed through professional reintegration projects provide the vast majority of the services offered by “the Stëmm”, including cooking, laundry, and processing donated food and clothes. “It’s always done from the people, for the people – that’s the idea”, explains Alexandra Oxacelay, who has been director of the Stëmm for eighteen years, and describes the organisation as “my first baby”.
Alexandra was initially hired for a project inspired by the UK’s Big Issue magazine, which seems appropriate, because the Big Issue’s famous slogan of “a hand up, not a hand out” perfectly describes her approach. Alexandra states firmly that what she does “is not charity” and her sincere commitment to this attitude is reflected in her language when referring to the Stëmm’s clients. Although I repeatedly caught myself thinking in terms of the Stëmm “giving” people jobs, Alexandra consistently and naturally spoke about people “working” and “contributing”. “Even if people have problems, and are not able to find a job again on the normal job market”, she explained, “they can do things that are needed”. She also expressed her admiration for the Stëmm’s homeless clients: “you need a lot of strength to live on the street, to be alone”.
Speaking from Personal Experience
Alexandra began her career as a journalist because she wanted “to make people think about things”, and she brings a passionate and sometimes unorthodox approach to her work. She explained that she is perhaps particularly sensitive to issues of social exclusion and addiction due to her first contact with them at age 12, when she was suddenly removed from the care of the nanny who she thought of as her “tata” (auntie) because her parents discovered that the family were drinking.
She remembers thinking, “Why can I not still have contact with my nanny’s family? Are they on the street or are they not?”
Tragically, the family all died within the next few years, with her nanny’s husband living to only 33. During our conversation, Alexandra repeatedly expressed a strong belief that “those people belong to society”. When I asked why this is the work she chooses to do, her initial answer was simply, “because it makes sense”, adding after a moment that “a society has to help the people in need”.
Stëmm vun der Strooss in action
I met with Alexandra at the Stëmm’s head office in Hollerich, which is a bustling hive of activity where visitors can eat for 50 cents at the social restaurant (which served over 45,000 meals last year), have a shower, drop off clothes at the laundry, and receive a new set of donated second-hand clothes. Alexandra was keen to show me the work being done there, and encouraged the people we met to speak for themselves. She asked George, a formerly homeless Canadian man working in the “editorial workshop”, to join us on our tour to assist with occasional translations. A bi-monthly journal is produced by the editorial team, which consists mostly of people working a few hours a day to qualify for Luxembourg’s RMG (guaranteed minimum income, a form of welfare payment). George explained that this kind of work environment helps people to get used to working life, learning to “be on time for work, make sure you’re clean for work – the normal things that they have forgotten because of being homeless or just being on social welfare watching TV at home”.
Stëmm vun der Strooss run a variety of projects across 5 sites
The Stëmm runs several other professional reintegration projects, such as the “Stëmm Caddy”, a workshop in Bonnevoie where fresh food donated by Auchan is processed into sandwiches, soup, and fruit juices to be given away. In 2015, this initiative saved 148 tonnes of food from going to waste. Alexandra told me enthusiastically about her plans to find bigger facilities, hire additional social workers, and purchase additional equipment so that the Caddy would be able to collect and process more of the food that is currently thrown away in the city.
Some of the people working on these projects are not eligible for RMG, but are instead “volunteers” who receive food, a bus pass, and a token monthly payment of 50€. (“The idea is also, even if people have problems – are not able to find a job again on the normal job market – they can do things that are needed, so we try to find jobs”, explained Alexandra.) George testified to the positive impact this can have on people, mentioning a homeless man he knows who has been able to stay sober during the week since starting to work making sandwiches at the Caddy. George stressed that it was having a friendly place to spend time that was most significant: “he’s responsible because he knows he’d lose that 50€, but he’s more worried about losing his workplace, that’s why he’s showing up correct”.
Addressing social exclusion – a key aim of the Stëmm
There are prejudices and fears and taboos; and people from outside don’t come here
“The idea of the Stëmm is not only to help but to fight against loneliness – those people belong to society,” says Alexandra. The initial idea of the “social restaurants” run by the Stëmm was not just to provide affordable meals, but also to offer an opportunity for interaction, by opening the doors to all. This remains challenging, however – “there are prejudices and fears and taboos; and people from outside don’t come here”. More successful social interactions have come from inviting contributions from organisations and workplace teams donating their time, for example teams from various banks helping at the Stëmm’s annual Christmas party by serving food and staffing the cloakroom. Thanks to the generosity of local businesses, the Stëmm is also often able to create opportunities to “take people out of their normal environment,” giving them experiences they wouldn’t typically be able to access, such as a cinema or concert trip, a professional haircut, or being served a meal in a restaurant.
Every story is different
With people of 84 nationalities using the Stëmm’s services, and around 150 people working in the various professional reintegration workshops, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Alexandra refuses to generalise about who the Stëmm’s clients are, or the underlying causes of their problems. “Every story is different”, she says, emphasizing that many people end up in difficulties (including addiction to alcohol or medication), because of multiple problems such as losing a job, divorce, depression – “they had not one trauma but more”. She feels strongly that “they are like us”,
‘Because they are our mirror, that’s why some people don’t feel comfortable with what they see. We could become like they are – we are not machines and we don’t know how we would react if a lot of things would happen in our life.’
How you can help:
- Check the website. For more details and contact information, see stemm.lu – it’s in English!
- Volunteer doctors needed. The Stëmm offers free medical care at a weekly clinic, and they need more doctors to join their team – doing just one clinic every 2 months would be a huge help.
- Volunteer as a team. Could you get a group together (perhaps from your workplace or a social club) to volunteer some time? As well as making a very valued contribution this can be a great team-building exercise…
- Donations please! Bags (rucksacks, sports bags etc.), sleeping bags, underwear, and socks are always particularly welcome.
- Subscribe. A subscription to the Stëmm’s bi-monthly journal, which is produced by one of the professional reintegration workshops, is 15€ per year.
- Financial support. Donations in support of the Stëmm’s work are always welcome – please note that these may be tax deductible (see website for details).
Photos courtesy of Alexandra Oxacelay