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Paris can be a cold place for the homeless, as the René Robert tragedy showed

The death of elderly Swiss photographer René Robert, ignored by passers-by for nine hours after collapsing on a cold Paris street, has sounded the alarm of French authorities over the plight of the country’s homeless, for whom such a fate is more likely.

But it also reminded the general public that much more needs to be done to bridge the understanding gap between homeless people and the rest of society.

Why we wrote this

If a well-known photographer can die ignored on the streets of Paris, what does that say about how French society treats its homeless population, for whom such a fate is more common?

Non-profit organizations are trying to solve the problem. One, Entourage, has created an app that allows its 90,000 members – homeless and not – to connect with each other in their community, when shyness or discomfort can make impromptu conversations difficult.

“People experiencing homelessness are like us in that they don’t necessarily want to tell all their problems to the first person to pass,” explains Eric Constantin of the Abbé Pierre Foundation. “We have to maintain the connection between people.”

“Most people stop to talk or ask if we need anything. But with the presidential elections and the Paris Olympics approaching, we are not the image the city wants to have,” laments Bruno, who is homeless. “But we’re human beings too, aren’t we?”

Paris

When elderly Swiss photographer Rene Robert collapsed on the pavement near the central Place de la Republique in Paris last month, lying helpless for nine hours in the winter cold before a man living on the street alerted the authorities on his fate – too late to save him – French society was shocked.

But while the public struggles to understand why no one stopped to help for hours, Mr Robert’s death is not necessarily unusual for France’s homeless population. In France, more than 500 people die each year in a situation of homelessness, and at an average age of 48, compared to 79 in the general population.

One of them was Valerie. She died at the end of December on a busy thoroughfare in the east of the French capital. Those who knew her say she was polite, always took care of her appearance and helped those around her, but struggled to find stable housing or a job. She had three sons, one of whom lived in the United States, according to locals.

Why we wrote this

If a well-known photographer can die ignored on the streets of Paris, what does that say about how French society treats its homeless population, for whom such a fate is more common?

“She was really nice, I used to give her hats and gloves and stuff to keep warm, but she always said, ‘No, I’ve had enough,'” says Maria, who runs a clothes stand in next to where Valérie has been setting up a tent for over a year with her companion, under the awning of a building. (Maria declined to give her last name.)

Now a bright yellow sign lined with delicate flowers hangs from a tree on the sidewalk where Valerie used to sleep, explaining that she lived and died here, and urging passers-by to stop and remember. from her. The makeshift shrine is the work of local collective Morts de la Rue, which has been working since 2015 to identify and commemorate homeless people who have died.

The challenge of providing housing and services to homeless people runs deep in big cities like Paris. But an even deeper problem is the tendency of society at large to ignore those who live on the streets.

Although he was not homeless, Mr Robert’s death on January 19 was a wake-up call for authorities to help those who have no place to sleep, which includes 300,000 people across the country and about 2,600 in Paris. But it also reminded French society that more needed to be done to humanise homeless people, to bridge the understanding gap between them and the rest of society.

“People living on the street obviously have material needs such as housing, food and good hygiene, but the most important thing for them is to feel visible”, explains Thibaut Besozzi, a sociologist at the University of Burgundy, who has lived eight months in part. times in the streets of Nancy as part of his post-doctoral research. “They just want to be acknowledged, that they’re not just human beings but individuals. A man living on the street once said to me: ‘A hello is worth more than a euro.’

A troubled housing process

In 2017, President Emmanuel Macron promised that no one would be subjected to life on the streets by the following year. But not only was he later forced to apologize for breaking that promise, but the measures French cities are taking to tackle homelessness have been questioned by advocacy groups.

In November 2020, police used tear gas to forcibly evict migrants camping in central Paris, and authorities systematically pushed back makeshift homeless shelters on the outskirts of the capital out of sight. . Several cities have launched anti-homeless measures, such as shortening public benches so they can’t sleep or installing spikes in doorways to prevent people from squatting.

Public opinion has often followed suit. At the end of January, residents of the 20th arrondissement of Paris demonstrated against an emergency accommodation center to be built in the neighborhood next September, fearing disorder and insecurity.

Several French cities have engaged in anti-homelessness measures, such as this one in Paris on February 7, 2022, where the city blocked off a corner once occupied by a man and his makeshift tent.

“The talk of the moment is that housing is something you have because you ‘deserve’ it, and if you don’t have it, it’s a bit your fault” , explains Eric Constantin, the director of the Ile-de-France branch. of the Abbé Pierre Foundation, a non-profit association which aims to provide access to decent housing. “But it’s so much more complex than people think. It’s always a succession of things – divorce, illness, job loss. We always think it’s something that can only happen to others, but homelessness can happen to anyone.

The Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris, currently offers shelter to around 150,000 people, but obstacles continue to make it difficult to find short- and long-term accommodation. According to the Abbé Pierre Foundation, one out of two requests for emergency accommodation via the national hotline receives no response.

And to apply for stable housing, you have to go through a social worker and go through many administrative steps. For those without an internet connection or French language skills, these challenges are compounded.

“The current government is repeating old mistakes of increasing funding for emergency shelters, but people are exhausted by it [lack of stability,]“, explains Edouard Gardella, sociologist at the CNRS, specialist in exclusion and homelessness. “Furthermore, there is a distinction in France between emergency accommodation, which is an unconditional right for everyone, and housing, which requires meeting certain criteria. This ultimately makes the system unfair.

“The majority of those without decent housing are invisible”

Turning around the current sentiment surrounding homelessness in France is a work in progress for local advocacy groups. While the rhetoric around homelessness has shifted over the past 100 years from criminality to victimization, vagrancy was technically punishable under French law until 1992.

Associations such as Samusocial and Aurore have bet on resolute measures such as approaching people directly in the street to find individualized housing solutions, as well as ways to encourage them to reintegrate into society if they wish. They offer addiction counseling, job training, or practical lessons like gardening and learning French.

It is more difficult to tackle the image problem suffered by homeless people. At Entourage, the goal is to change the perception of people living on the street and to remove the barriers that prevent people from approaching them. The non-profit organization has created an app that allows the 90,000 members, homeless or not, to connect with each other in their community, when shyness or discomfort can make impromptu conversations difficult.

“People experiencing homelessness are like us in that they don’t necessarily want to tell all their problems to the first person to pass,” explains Mr. Constantin of the Abbé Pierre Foundation. “We have to keep the link alive between people… [but] the majority of those without decent housing are invisible and go to great lengths to hide the fact that they have no place to live.

When all else fails, the association Morts de la Rue – which declined to be interviewed – continues its mission to humanize those who have lived a life of precariousness and to preserve their memory. Downstairs from Valerie’s memorial is another of their yellow signs, this time for a middle-aged man named Bogumil who died in December.

Bruno and Michel, friends of Bogumil who have struggled to find a job or stable housing, spend their days in front of a supermarket. They say they have always had a system of “mutual aid” when the city does not, and do not think that what happened to Mr. Robert, the photographer, can happen to them. But they realize the fragility of their situation.

“Most people stop to talk or ask if we need anything. But with the presidential elections and the Paris Olympics approaching, we are not the image the city wants to have, so they are trying to get rid of us,” says Bruno, a shy smile under a Nordic green cap and pepper and salt beard. “But we’re human beings too, aren’t we?” Yes, I mean, I guess we are.