Friday, February 16, 2007

French Particularities No. 12: Les SDFs

When I was a student at the University of London in the 1980s, there seemed to be homeless people everywhere, begging for change, many of them living in cardboard boxes under bridges by the Thames. It seemed that the problem was part and parcel of Margaret Thatcher's new, low tax, unregulated, service-driven economy. House-prices in London had shot up rapidly and this had no doubt acted to squeeze out those at the bottom end of the housing market onto the streets.

It would seem that the same thing has happened in Paris over the last few years, housing prices (always judged by the square metre in Paris) having doubled between 2000 and 2006. Today, Paris appears to have a chronic homelessness problem. Some regular readers will remember my post here just before Christmas about the death of a homeless person who lived in the foyer of the building where I work. Two months later his 'patch' is now occupied by two homeless men, one quite old and feeble, the other younger and black.

On Wednesday I went out for the evening in Paris. I felt as if I was seeing homeless people everywhere. I suppose I must have noticed between twenty and thirty, sleeping rough in the metro or riding the trains. One couple settled close to me on a busy RER train as I headed for home. They were a man and woman, both around thirty. The woman's gentle face was terribly puffed up and bruised as if she had been severly beaten up, her mouth distorted strangely. The man, who was bearded, watched her attentively. When she crouched down in a corner of the carriage and tried to sleep with her head on her arm, he crouched down beside her and supported her. All they had was a carrier bag each. On the arm of the man's shabby grey anorak was a sewn label which read simply: STATUS. Huddled together they reminded me of Toulouse-Lautrec's beautiful picture the bed, only that they were living out this tender partnership on a crowded train, some of the passengers looking on with notable looks of distaste.

These people are known as Les SDFs, les sans domicile fixe (no fixed abode). Their average life expectancy on the streets is 48 years of age. Two-thirds of them are said to have some kind of mental illness. Over the last few months, various groups have been trying to generate the political will to do something about the problem. A group called Les Enfants de Don Quichotte has set up two hundred red tents beside the Canal St Martin, partly as temporary accommodation for certain SDF and partly as a protest against the problem.

Almost 20,000 people have so far signed up to the charter that 'Les Enfants de Don Quichotte' have asked public and politicians alike to sign. This may seem like a lot, but rather shockingly, it means that only 3400 people in Paris are sufficiently concerned to sign up, despite quite a lot of media attention to the subject. Here is an outline of the charter:

We, citizens, refuse the inhuman situation in which certain of us live without fixed residence. We want to put an end to this scandal, and the shame that it represents to a country like ours. The Constitution guarantees the right to dignity, with suitable means of existence, and we have a duty of assistance to anybody in danger. We will no longer accept that the most fragile or poorest are left at the edge of the road. It is necessary to put an end to provisional solutions, emergency planning which worsens precariousness and condemns so many people to an unbearable suffering, and for some, an untimely death. We ask the State to set up, as of today, an ambitious policy guaranteeing the access of all to real housing, through the following measurements. For the dignity of all.

Article 1: To open the lodging houses 24H/24H, 365 days per annum, and to humanise the conditions of reception.

Article 2: To stop the homeless being sent back to the streets. Every welcome at a lodging house should lead to a stable solution.

Article 3: To create an immediate offer of temporary residence.

Article 4: To create more social housing accessible to the poorest households.

Article 5: To develop accommodation for alternative styles of living, such as communal living.

Article 6: To make the right to a lodging place a legal right in France.

It was fifty years ago that Abbe Pierre's campaigning first made it illegal in France for bailiffs to force lodgers from their homes during the winter months. It would be a fitting memorial to Abbe Pierre, the founder of the Emmaus movement and ardent campaigner for the homeless who died on 22nd January this year, if this charter were put in to action.

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