Homelessness in Paris

21 August 2013 | By Cause4 staff

This blog was written by Cause4 intern Margaret Macdonald.

Paris is famous, and rightly so, for its exciting night life and romantic cafés, however on a sadder note there is also a huge part of the population that is homeless. Expensive rents, pension cuts, illness - take your pick of the causes.

Last year, when I was living in the Fifth arrondissement of Paris, well known for the Sorbonne and the boisterous Quartier Latin, I met a charming man living, at the time, in-between 175 and 179 Boulevard Saint-Marcel. He had been a tiler and when he retired, his circumstances had forced him to move onto the streets. His story was sad but the thing that he stressed the most was that his was not an isolated case and that many of his fellow "SDFs " (sans domicile fixe : of no fixed abode) had similar background stories. It's when you come and live in a place like London, where many successful infrastructures and schemes have been set up, that you realise just how much homelessness surrounds you in Paris and how alone these people are.

In 2012, Manuel Valls (the current Home Secretary in France) was accused of actually asking the police to clear (literally) the streets of homeless people around his house as the sight of them bothered his partner. Shocking as this behaviour may be, it is a very good example of the reality of the situation - the French do not like homelessness but they aren't willing to put the time or energy into creating solutions, they just keep on trying to make it someone else's problem. According to research carried out by charity organisation ‘Les Morts de la Rue’ (translated : the dead of the streets) counted that 303 men, women and children had died on the streets in France since January 2013.

In the UK, several brilliant schemes have been set up, including The Big Issue, where the homeless are given a set of magazines which they sell for £2.50 a piece. They can then use the profit to purchase more magazines to sell, and make a living from the profit. The fact that the beneficiaries have to buy their own magazines before selling them off motivates them and allows them to take matters into their own hands rather than just be given food or shelter; they are invited to become business people. The streets of London are safer and happier from this type of charity, which offers useful, interesting employment, without degrading its sellers. But could Paris and its inhabitants set up a similar scheme and would it be successful?

In George Orwell's "Down and out in Paris and London", homelessness in London and Paris are compared to each other, as the author tried living on very little funds in both towns. Although it dates back to 1933, it seems quite clear, even then, that the British are simply more organised. Even in 1933, proper homeless shelters existed in London, unlike in Paris, where the only option was cheap – and often dangerous – hotels.

I think that the French have a lot to learn from a charity like The Big Issue. There are, of course, some infrastructures in place in Paris, including homeless shelters, but homeless people who have been interviewed often say they prefer to stay on the street; the shelters being plagued by theft and unhygienic conditions. Several well-known charities such as ‘Les Restos Du Coeur’ – foodbanks similar to those run by the Trussell Trust, founded by l'Abbé Pierre, also organise regular food distributions, but these are never enough for the 16,500 individuals reported to be living homeless in Paris.

The root of the problem lies with a Government that has not taken any real steps to face the growing problem of homelessness. Indeed, the Government has preferred to spend money installing anti-homeless devices to prevent homeless people sleeping on the streets of the capital! But would there be any mileage in bringing a British strategy, such as The Big Issue and attempting to apply it in France? We would love to know your views.

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