The Guardian

'Care BnB'- the town where mentally ill people lodge with locals

Residents in Geel have been taking in mentally ill strangers for hundreds of years. Now academics are looking to the small Flemish town for social care ideas
Jefkae Harbant (middle) with his foster family, Maria Lenaerts and her husband Jules Teunckens (right). Photograph: Judith Jockel/for the Guardian

Maria Lenaerts was seven years old when she came home from school one day to find a stranger at the kitchen table. It was September 1942 in Nazi-occupied Belgium.

The young man looked afraid. He did not say a word to her. “He was sitting at the table like this,” she recalls, hiding her head in her arms. “He didn’t understand anything.”

This was her first encounter with Jefkae Harbant, then an 18-year old with a learning disability and no place to call home. He was born in the French-speaking part of Belgium and did not speak a word of Dutch. Neither Maria nor her parents knew any French.

Despite the language barrier, Maria’s parents, who were cattle farmers in the Flemish lowlands, had decided to take the young man in. This was not only

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