For De Warmste Week, Kristel Verbeke talks to people in poverty, a theme that is close to her heart. ‘Suddenly I wasn’t a child anymore and I had to explain to the landlord why the rent hadn’t been paid yet.’
“The Christmas period used to be hell,” says Kristel Verbeke, one of the members of the original K3 who has reinvented herself as a presenter of Take care of Mom. “My youngest sister died on December 28 and my oldest sister on January 13. The Christmas season has never been more fun since they were gone. There are always two too few at the festive table.”
Verbeke has personally experienced that poverty is a highway robber that can fall unexpectedly on the back of anyone’s neck. In a few months, her life changed from a happy comedy to a drama à la Ken Loach.
“We were an ordinary working-class family. My father was a truck driver, my mother a cleaning lady. We didn’t know great luxury, but we had it good. But due to the divorce of my parents and the loss of my sisters, a lot has happened in a short time that got us into trouble. Suddenly you are in a cold house, with an empty fridge, with a father who is hardly ever there. Suddenly I was no longer a child and I had to explain to the landlord why the rent had not yet been paid. Those are things you shouldn’t be thinking about as a young girl. Your childhood will be taken away from you.
“For the program on One that I am making as part of De Warmste Week, I spoke to an eleven-year-old boy. He lived with his mother, three sisters and a dog in social housing. He told how his mom always dies from the stress when bills fall in the mailbox again. “But everything will be fine!” he says. ‘Because when I’m 16, I’m going to work. Then we never have to sleep on the street.’ Then I think: that boy is eleven. He should be playing football, playing, doing mischief. But your youth suddenly ends. Life becomes survival. The rashness, being able to go to the store and buy something you like, being able to pursue your hobby, meeting up with friends…”
“How many people don’t come along when something is organized because they can’t afford a round? And so they say they don’t feel like it. Everything that is nice, that makes life alive, falls away. There are so many choices, which are obvious to us, but which disappear when you are poor. Suppose you receive a bag of clothes as a gift. Yippee. That they are a bit retro and in horrible colors, that’s just the way it is. Or food banks: thank God they exist, but if you would like to eat vegan out of conviction, then forget it.”
Verbeke has, as in the better Houdini act, escaped poverty. Thanks to the big mouth she learned to put on as a little girl in a big world and a gift for keeping up appearances that is part of the basic poverty course. The ideal preparation to become ‘the black of K3’.
“At K3 I was an enlarged version of myself. I was a cartoon character, so I didn’t have to show much. I thought that was very safe. I cherished that. Okay, sometimes I also found it difficult being a cartoon character as an adult woman, but I think we evolved into that as a group.”
Only after her retirement as a pop princess did Verbeke dare to be open about her past. She thought it was important to express herself, because poverty too often remains hidden.
“That always comes back to poverty: the shame, the taboo. It’s just embarrassing to admit that as a kid you didn’t know that people have to wash every day. That’s not what I was taught. You feel that if you speak up, people will view you differently. “
In the meantime, she is happy that her story is public good.
“People no longer only see Kristel from K3, but also the person underneath. I used to hold on tight to my K3 straitjacket. Today I dare to show myself more. And when I talk to people now, they quickly feel: yes, you know what it’s like, don’t you?”
Do you still carry many scars from that time?
“Yes, I am still frugal (laughs). I have an excel sheet at home with all our income and expenses. If there is less work for a while, I get very nervous. I also get very grumpy when my fridge is empty. That remains. And I’m not good at relationships. Everything is going great with my husband and the kids, but other than that I don’t have many people I spend a lot of time with. I like to be alone at home with my family. Maybe that’s a piece of self-protection. As an adult woman, I still have a very hard time trusting people. I am social and open, but there is still a high wall that you cannot easily break through.”
Verbeke has now made two seasons of Take care of Momin which she shows the true face of poverty through the stories of a dozen mothers with financial difficulties.
Was it all recognition for you, or were you often surprised yourself?
“Poverty has many faces. That’s cliche, but it’s true. What causes paralysis in one person makes the other combative. What I did see coming back everywhere was the abundance. You can solve one thing, but then the next problem arises. It’s always a mess. Very exhausting.”
I remembered that from the series: poverty is incredibly hard work.
“Yes. Joost, one of the poverty coaches in Take care of Mom, once said: poverty is a full-time job. It is not easy to manage a budget anyway, but for people in poverty it is constantly thinking: how am I going to solve this, how are we going to eat tomorrow, how are we going to get to work? That’s hard work, yes. You can never even catch your breath. Compare it with a deadline or a move. In the run-up to it you feel a lot of stress, but once it’s done, you can breathe again. But the stress never ends with poverty.”
What I found particularly poignant was the guilt that weighed down most moms. While it was seldom their fault, but rather the result of unfortunate circumstances or plain bad luck.
“You always think you did something wrong. One of the moms out Take care of Mom had to choose between two invoices. She could only afford one. She chose in good conscience, but then a bailiff showed up for the one she hadn’t paid. She felt guilty for guessing wrong.”
You see that coming back to all moms: they all say ‘it’s my fault that…’. While they are often unsung heroines who save the food from their mouths for their children.
“Literally, yes. I remember a recording day: a quick stop at the bakery for a coffee cake in the car. I arrive at one of the mothers, where we would film the morning ritual, making the bread box. But… there was no bread. I think there were two more slices for the kids. Nothing for the mother. Then you feel so guilty that you just ate such a stupid coffee cake.”
Verbeke is pleased that with De Warmste Week some attention is once again being paid to underprivileged people and that she herself is Flames against poverty put the problem on the map. “The problems are only getting bigger. One in eight children is born in poverty. In Brussels that is even one in four. That’s a number of sports halls full, isn’t it? And those are still relatively old figures. In the meantime, there are more.”
Can I call an initiative such as De Warmste Week somewhat double? You buy off your guilt by showing your solidarity once a year, even though things should change structurally.
“The Warmest Week only takes place once a year, but there are all kinds of projects behind it that run throughout the year. What I hope is that people will also take a look at the site of De Warmste Week to discover it. Maybe they will find a project in their own neighborhood to which they can contribute financially, or where they can help… But you are right that things need to change, above all, structurally. Politicians should show some guts.”
How can they do that?
“I have the impression that they want to invent hot water, but there are quite a few projects that have been proven to work very well. The Children’s Poverty Fund, for example, has investigated what it would cost exactly to invest in children and what the return would be. That has been thoroughly calculated. Politicians should only apply what works and roll it out across Flanders. That’s courage, but it’s not. I think it is their damned duty to have an eye for the vulnerable in society.”
Do politicians focus too much on the economy and too little on people?
“During the first phase of the corona crisis, about 2 percent went to social measures. The rest is pumped into the economy. Then you show what you think is most important, right? (gets excited) For De Warmste Week I bring together a hundred people who live in poverty or who are confronted with it. I asked them the question: which of you spend half of your income on housing? I think that was about 60 percent of them. Then you know that you have to change something in your housing and social policy, don’t you?”
Verbeke certainly continues to believe in it: a world without poverty, somewhere behind the rainbow.
“I dream of a white march on Brussels, where people who are well off stand up for people who are having a harder time. So that we all show together: do something! We don’t have to wait until everyone is in over their heads in trouble, do we? In a sense, De Warmste Week is also a cry for action. We show how much these concerns are alive.”
Flames against poverty. On a. Monday and Thursday at 10 pm.