During a trip to Paris last month, I was struck by the number of apparently homeless individuals who were sitting against buildings and near the streets, particularly those with babies and small children.
While data concerning total estimates of homeless people is lacking, the French national statistics office reported a 50% increase in homelessness in France from 2001 to 2012, including a rise in foreigners and women. A recent study by the charity “Les Morts de la Rue” (The Dead in the Streets) revealed that 453 homeless people died in the streets of France in 2013, which equates to a homeless person dying every 20 hours. The life expectancy for people with no fixed housing, then, appears to be 30 years less than that of the rest of the population. To draw attention to this problem, the French collective prepared an obituary containing the names of all the homeless people who died last year as part of a remembrance ceremony held in Paris on March 18.
There are of course, some infrastructures in place in Paris to help with this problem, including homeless shelters, but many articles cite interviews with homeless people who say they prefer to stay on the street as the shelters are plagued by theft and unhygienic conditions.
In France as in the United States and elsewhere, there is a high proportion of homeless individuals with mental health and/or substance abuse problems. Within France’s population of 65 million, an estimated 12 million inhabitants currently suffer from one or more mental disorders. Deinstitutionalization and a shortage of low-priced accommodation are cited as familiar contributing factors.
The French in general have a deep concern and sympathy for the homeless population. One article states, “The French are the nationality most likely to view homelessness as the result of financial crisis, unemployment and housing crises and the least likely to blame the individual for personal reasons such as drugs or alcohol.” This can be compared to a 2011 American survey from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in which 91% of respondents asserted that homelessness was primarily caused by drug and alcohol abuse; 62 percent said it was laziness.
While doing some research following my trip, I found many examples of the sympathy that the French reportedly feel toward the homeless population. Ranzika Faid drives a “shower-mobile” through Paris equipped with free toilets for homeless people and furnished with soaps, clothing, razors, deodorant, and perfume. Everything is designed toward the goal of restoring dignity to the residents of the street. The idea comes from a 2006 survey published by Emmaus, which revealed that the third priority for the homeless is to feel themselves clean. From this evidence, Faid started a two and a half year campaign to collect the necessary funds in order to buy the Mobil’douche and cover the insurance, gas and 230 liters of water to keep in the tanks. At the entrance there is a room with free cookies and coffee, with two private bathrooms toward the back, one of which is usable by people with disabilities.
Another innovative example of compassion toward the homeless in Paris is Joël Catherin, a young lawyer who began writing quirky cardboard signs for the homeless people in his neighborhood, such as the sign here which translates to, “I could be your grandmother.” His signs have since drawn attention from locals, social media and the French press. Catherin states, “Humans don’t need subtitles. It’s more that, through the words on the cardboard, passersby looked at these people differently and realized they were human beings. It wasn’t about money, it was about changing the way people view others.”