“The meaning of the other and love have disappeared from this society. Without money, people do not exist.” – Jean, a 33-year-old homeless man living on the streets of Paris
At least 3,000 people are thought to be living on the streets of Paris this winter, more than half of whom are believed to have been born outside of France.
According to France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), in 2014, the number of homeless adults in the Paris Metropolitan Area had increased by 84 percent in the proceeding decade.
Some of that growth has been attributed to the 2008 financial crisis, some to the large numbers of migrants and refugees making their way to the French capital and some to the failure of salaries to keep up with the rising cost of living, particularly the cost of buying or renting a home.
According to INSEE, 16.1 percent of Parisians – roughly 463,000 people – live below the poverty line, with an average monthly income of 747 euros ($848.65), which is 261 euros ($296.52) less than the poverty threshold.
The result is that having a job no longer offers protection against homelessness. Fifty-year-old Kemal understands this all too well.
He used to be a taxi driver, but health issues led to him losing his job.
“I have earned salaries of over 2,000 euros ($2,272) in the past, but Paris is an expensive city and I could not pay my debts,” he recalls. “Today, I have lost everything and my health problems will not allow me to dream of a better future.”
Now, Kemal sleeps beneath a shelter made from scraps of plastic in a square on the outskirts of the city.
“But I do not lose hope and I keep working hard every day to improve my life and to be able to earn some money to one day travel to a country with sun every day. The cold and rain is worsening my health condition,” he adds.
“Without money, we do not exist any more in France,” explains Eddy, a 35-year-old homeless man from Tunisia who originally came to France in search of a better life. That dream now lies shattered on the streets of the capital.
But studies have shown that Parisians tend to have more sympathetic attitudes towards the homeless than residents of many other European cities.
According to a 2009 study, 75 percent of French people felt some degree of solidarity with those sleeping on the streets and 56 percent said they could imagine one day being in the same position.
Every night, dozens of volunteers patrol the city’s streets ‘en maraudes’, searching out those in need of a blanket, a paracetamol or just a conversation.
“In Paris, it is impossible to die from hunger. There are so many good organisations providing us with a free meal every day,” says Hicham, a homeless man who is originally from Morocco and carries with him a book that Paris’ City Hall has created listing the social services available to those in need.
But according to campaign group Morts de la Rue, 400 homeless people died across France in 2017. Many organisations believe the real number to be much higher.
“Some ask for money, some for food. Cold is our worst enemy,” explains Nasser, a homeless man originally from Algeria. “But the indifference of the people is an obstacle that is difficult to overcome.
“The solitude of our lives can happen to anyone. The people of Paris need to understand that we just want a smile or a simple ‘bonjour’. That can make a cold day not be hell for us.”
A fan of the writer Victor Hugo and the artist Picasso, Nasser explains: “There is beauty in every corner of our lives, but this society has lost sensibility. Ideas have disappeared and money is making this society blind to love.”
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With thanks to the team and volunteers of Secours Catholique, Medecins Du Monde, Secours Populaire and Association Aurore who helped make this article possible.