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Down and out in Paris: Homeless in the French capital

Mattresses and blankets for the homeless on Paris's Place de la République.
Mattresses and blankets for the homeless on Paris's Place de la République. Mehdi Chebil

For years, Bernadette has been shuffling between streets, squats and emergency shelters across France. Her tale testifies to the hardships of the country’s growing number of homeless.

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The 36-year-old mother of four travelled to Paris this week with her son Rémi and her new partner Diego, who are both 19. As she always does upon arriving in a new city, Bernadette dialed “115” to reach the Samu Social, the social service that provides emergency accommodation to the homeless. She was hoping for a place in one of the spartan shelters she knows all too well, but was told they were full. Instead, she was sent to Place de la République, a vast square in central Paris where various associations were handing out mattresses and blankets as part of an event known as “Solidarity Night”.

From left to right: Bernadette, 36, her partner Diego and son Rémi, both 19.
From left to right: Bernadette, 36, her partner Diego and son Rémi, both 19.

“It’s comforting to see people help us, but this is no shelter,” she says. “We got a mattress and a sleeping bag, OK, but no roof over our heads and it’s freezing cold!” She and the scores of homeless people and activists gathered on the square were also given sandwiches and treated to concerts – but only for one night. Far from offering a solution to France’s housing crisis, the “Solidarity Night” is meant to raise awareness of a growing problem.

France’s ‘SDF’

According to INSEE, France’s national institute for statistics, some 8.8 million people currently live in poverty, though other estimates put the figure at half the amount. Record unemployment levels and a shortage of homes have compounded the crisis. Last week, a report by the Fondation Abbé Pierre, a highly respected housing advocacy group, said 3.5 million people had “inadequate accommodation” (ranging from unsanitary homes to none at all). Among them, the number of homeless, known in France as “SDF”, has reached 142,000, up 50% from ten years ago. They include a growing number of families, youths, asylum seekers and people suffering from mental illnesses.

“These days wherever you look you see them [the homeless],” says Bernadette, 36, who has been an “SDF” for half her life. On Thursday morning, she and her two companions left Clermont-Ferrand in central France “to visit the capital”. “Obviously” they travelled without tickets. “Inevitably” they each got a fine. Though by far the eldest, Bernadette says she is incapable of taking care of the other two, leaving Diego to run the show. “I won’t ever abandon her, despite her dirty tricks,” he says with a grin.

Two weeks ago they were kicked out of a shelter in Clermont after she stumbled home drunk and accused Diego of beating her. “I was plastered,” she says with a giggle, gently stroking a puppy huddled beneath her coat. “I’ve been beaten so often, I don’t know why I said that.” Violence, squatting, alcohol, “it is all I have ever known,” she says.

Homeless or beaten

Bernadette first ended up without a roof aged 18. “My partner beat me so I left,” she says. “I slept where I could, but when the little one was born things got more complicated.” She didn’t raise Rémi, nor his two brothers and his sister, whom she rarely sees and who all live in Clermont-Ferrand. “I simply wasn’t capable,” she says, blaming her addiction to alcohol.

More than a hundred temporary beds were lined up on Place de la République as part of "Solidarity Night".
More than a hundred temporary beds were lined up on Place de la République as part of "Solidarity Night".

Rémi decided to join her when he turned 18, quitting the home where he lived with his father and grandmother. He says his siblings “refused to understand” their mother. Instead, he chose to forgive her, preferring her drunken excesses to the blows he received from his father. “She didn’t take care of us,” he says calmly, his voice betraying no resentment. “She didn’t do what was necessary when I was a kid. I do what’s necessary now that I’m an adult,” he says. “For now, I’m staying with her.”

Neither Rémi nor his mother is employed. He quit school before graduating, while she lined up several part-time jobs including harvesting wine grapes and potato collection, before stopping. “It was difficult. Even with a job you don’t get a home. Now I beg in the streets. It’s what we do all day long,” she says. Both live off the monthly €400 she gets in social benefits, which generally lasts a week. “We use the money to buy food, a mobile phone when we get robbed, or a joint from time to time,” she says. Bernadette would rather her son had chosen a different path. “I would have preferred not to have Rémi with me. But he has chosen to stay with me. He keeps me warm. The three of us keep each other warm,” she says.

‘Every day I call 115’

Her son did not complain when Diego showed up a few weeks ago. Nor was he bothered by the age gap between his mother and his new step-father. “We could easily not have got on, but it didn’t happen,” he says, wrapped up in a sky coat and winter hat. All agree it is better to be in number out in the street. “It’s much safer,” says Diego, who also has a “complicated history”, with an absent mother and a violent father. “I don’t even know if she’s alive, my mother – I have no idea,” he chuckles.

Like his partner, Diego says he has no plans to change lifestyle in the future. Only Rémi believes he will “have to make a living someday”. But with temperatures dropping to below freezing, the priority now is to find a place to sleep. “Every day we call 115,” says Bernadette, shivering from the winter chill. “Some mornings you just don’t feel like getting up.”

Homeless people, activists and passers-by were treated to concerts by local artists Dias, Georgio, and the Saltimbanks.
Homeless people, activists and passers-by were treated to concerts by local artists Dias, Georgio, and the Saltimbanks.

 

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