Bare cracked feet protrude from a pair of frayed, too short trousers. Ankles and calves exposed, a man stretches out, asleep on the hard, warm concrete. An ornate, elegant Guimard art nouveau Metro sign towers above him, casting a shadow. He is street homeless in Paris.
The Invisible Homeless
Crowds of people pass by. Some, hurriedly step over his sprawled legs in order to reach their destination more quickly. He is invisible and he’s not alone. Spend any length of time in Paris and you cannot fail to notice the ever increasing numbers of street homeless, people sleeping rough on the city’s pavements.
Nuit de la Solidarité
A bitterly cold February witnessed the second census of homelessness in the city. Paris Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, recruited volunteers to count the number of homeless people living on the capital’s streets. Named the Nuit de la Solidarité (Night of Solidarity) over 1700 people attempted to capture the true scale of homelessness in Paris.
Only “around 50 men” Sleeping Rough
Prior to the census, French Secretary of State, Julien Denormandie, dubiously claimed that “only around 50 men” were sleeping rough in the Paris region. Within 500 metres of my apartment I am able to count at least 10 permanently homeless people, including two women. They are a familiar, daily sight. 50 seems an unlikely total to anyone regularly walking the city streets.
The number of people known as sans domicile (homeless), clochards (vagrants) or refugees stands at a conservative estimate of 8,000 people. Emmanuel Macron’s pledge in 2018 that no-one would be sleeping rough on the Paris streets by the end of the year, failed to bear fruition. Street homelessness has been a constant in Paris for the last decade. A constant that no political administration seems able to resolve, as each year, the numbers increase.
463,000 Below the Poverty Threshold
Along the Rue du Poteau where I sit drinking my early morning coffee, there are 4 industrial sized bins. It’s here that the Halles de Montmartre (greengrocer), Pirates of Montmartre Poissonneries (fishmonger) and Boucherie Traiteur (butcher) dispose of their rubbish and spoiled stock. I sit and watch as a young woman with a shopping bag rifles methodically through each bin in turn.
She peers into the first large, green bin, stuffed with boxes, cardboard, polystyrene and food deemed unfit for sale. Poking and ploughing through the debris, her arm submerged amongst the boxes, she emerges with three carrots. Digging a little more, she unearths a bunch of coriander.
Onto the next bin, nudging cardboard carefully, she exhumes an entire fish. Arm outstretched, she brandishes the limp iridescent body towards the light, scrutinising it before wrapping it in plastic and placing the package in her shopping bag. Well prepared, she pulls out another bag folded neatly into a small square. After 10 minutes of searching she leaves with 3 shopping bags of food retrieved from the bins.
Moments later, an elderly woman wearing worn black plimsols, a long skirt, head scarf tied around her loose hair, reaches for the lid of the first bin. She stands on tiptoes to see inside. Nothing. She lacks the energy of the first woman. Dismay and bewilderment spreads across her face. She immediately gives up, wandering slowly away up Rue Duhesme.
The same scene is repeated regularly throughout the next hour. Only those able to dig deep enough into each bin are able to salvage the much picked over discarded food. The people I watch may or may not be homeless, I have no way of knowing. What is clear, is that they are unable to exist, to afford the basics. As I write, a man stands in the doorway next to me. He talks to himself and sings children’s rhymes in between asking passers by for money or cigarettes.
463,000 Below the Poverty Line in Paris
The National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), estimate that 12,000 people sleep on the streets of France. Many organisations approximate a much higher total. In 2018 INSEE also determined that around 463,000 people live below the poverty line in Paris with an average monthly income of €747. That’s €261 below the poverty threshold.
Lack of affordable housing, the after shock from the 2008 recession, asylum seekers, the closure of Sangatte in Calais and economic migration from Africa and the Middle East all contribute to the rising numbers of street homelessness here. The city is unable to house or offer beds to the majority of rough sleepers. Instead, they sleep on mattresses in doorways. On layers of cardboard under bridges. In makeshift homes of sheets and plastic on benches or in tents over metro air vents.
It’s estimated that an average of 480 people die on the city streets each year. Brutal sub zero winters in canyons of icy wind created by steep multi floored Haussmann buildings followed by summer heatwaves compound any existing health problems that rough sleepers might have.
Are they still there?
A quick flick through Paris travel forums only seems to elicit annoyance that it’s now a little more difficult to walk along the peaceful Canal St Martin due to the tents that have proliferated by the canal side. Or the lost opportunity for a picturesque photograph along the Seine. “Are they still there?” somebody asks at the beginning of a thread debating whether you should “warn your children about the homeless” before you arrive. Paris may be the city of love, but sometimes that love is in short supply.
I wonder if we have become immune to what those tents and bodies strewn across the city streets and in doorways represent. We no longer take care of our most fragile and vulnerable. So, yes. You should warn your children. Warn them that the person laid so fatigued and weary that they simply sleep, on the bare concrete pavement in front of them is someone else’s child. The person in the tent over the metro air vent could be their mother, or their father. The body that they skirt uncomfortably around on that inconvenient mattress could be their grandmother. Warn them that the sans domicile are not made of different stuff. They’re not feckless or lazy or ‘other’ than the rest of us. Warn them, that we all tread unaware, along a deceptively invisible line between the haves and have nots. That being down and out in Paris, or anywhere else, could happen to anyone, one day. Including them.