Counting the homeless on the streets of Paris

Guillaume Guguen, FRANCE 24 | Volunteers on the streets of Paris do a late night count of homeless people on February 15-16, 2018.

Around 2,000 civil servants and volunteers participated in a nocturnal count of homeless people organised by the Paris mayor’s office late Thursday into early Friday. FRANCE 24 followed a team in eastern Paris.


At 8.45pm in the 20th arrondissement (district) town hall in eastern Paris, Luisa Landa is handing out maps to her team of volunteers. "I hope you’re wearing good shoes," she jokes, informing the team that they have just over an hour to complete their route.

"I think we’ve got the largest sector," says Nathalie Maquoi, poring over her map marking her designated area of about 15 blocks between the Boulevard Périphérique -- the ringroad around the French capital -- and an abandoned railway track.

Volunteers receive their maps at 20th arrondissement town hall in eastern Paris.
Volunteers receive their maps at 20th arrondissement town hall in eastern Paris. Guillaume Guguen, France 24

They call themselves the “marauders” – a term which, in the original French, means a vagabond or drifter. Landa and her team are among 1,700 volunteers participating in the Nuit de la Solidarité (Night of Solidarity) organised by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo to count the homeless on the streets of Paris in order to provide them with better services.

The Paris mayor’s office declared February 15th Nuit de la Solidarité, inviting activists and ordinary citizens to participate in a count that would see volunteers interviewing homeless people between 10pm to 1am, using a questionnaire that guaranteed anonymity.

Homelessness is a major problem in the French capital, with most Parisians and tourists noting the vast number of people in recent years sleeping rough in the City of Light. The winter has been exceptionally harsh for the homeless this year, with 11 people dying between January 1st and February 12th alone, according to Les Morts dans la Rue (Deaths on the street), a collective that tracks the deaths of homeless people in France. The deaths were caused by hypothermia, chronic disease and addiction.

The number of homeless people in France is a controversial issue, with activists and many Parisians accusing President Emmanuel Macron’s government of downplaying the problem. State Secretary for Housing Julien Denormandie sparked an uproar last month when he said there were around 50 people sleeping rough in the Paris metropolitan area, a claim that activists called “insufferable”.

Sylvain Maillard, an MP for Macron's La République en Marche (LREM) party, caused a further stir earlier this month when he told FRANCE 24’s sister radio station, RFI, that some people were homeless by choice.

Sparked by a massive outcry, Hidalgo’s office initiated a Nuit de la Solidarité based on similar exercises in Brussels, New York, Athens and Washington DC. After the LREM politicians' recent comments however, Hidalgo's move ran the risk of turning this Nuit de la Solidarité into a political exercise aimed at discrediting the government's policies in the fight against poverty.

Given these risks, organisers were especially careful to avoid duplication or any other likely statistical problems, dividing the approximately 1,700 volunteers into 350 teams, each led by a professional social activist.

A crash course in interview procedures

At the 19th arrondissement town hall, Landa -- a deputy director of a local branch of Emmaus Solidarité, a Paris-based NGO – is busy briefing her team of 16 volunteers. “We have to organise our itinerary so we don't walk miles for nothing," she tells her team. "The idea is to stay together, but to ensure only two people interview a homeless person. We don't want to be like flies descending on a honeypot."

Before leaving for the field, volunteers are given a crash course in operational procedures: "We do not interview people we know, we do not wake them if they’re sleeping, we guarantee their anonymity…" The instructions are made crystal clear.

It is also forbidden -- and this applies particularly to journalists assisting with the operation -- to photograph or film interviews. Operation zones are limited to the streets, metro and railway stations under the authority of public transportation services.

Lesson one: debunking stereotypes of the homeless

For the volunteers, the most difficult part is being able to detect people likely to be homeless. "Do we have to question everyone?" asks Iman, a 27-year-old lawyer who has just moved into the 20th arrondissement. "It depends on the person,” she is told. “Sometimes, there are clues: a person parked near a bench, a bottle of alcohol placed at his or her feet..." Still, she is informed, there are often no visible signs of homelessness.

Beyond a quantitative census, the objective of "Nuit de la solidarité" is also to get a better idea the profiles of homeless people in Paris using a non-mandatory questionnaire that guarantees anonymity.
Beyond a quantitative census, the objective of "Nuit de la solidarité" is also to get a better idea the profiles of homeless people in Paris using a non-mandatory questionnaire that guarantees anonymity. Guillaume Guguen, France 24

In Landa’s team, most volunteers have social service experience. They know that stereotypes cannot be trusted. Solène, who works at a speech therapy centre, spends a few hours each month at an NGO that runs a locker room and laundry for the homeless of the 11th arrondissement. "Some of the people coming to us wear such clean clothes, you wouldn't believe they live on the street," she explains.

Landa recounts the case of a nurse who lived in Paris’s Orly airport for three months without anyone at work realising it. "She did not show any signs of a homeless life," she explains. Christian, who works at a public bath in the 20th arrondissement, notes that homeless people have various profiles. “Some of them have work, but no housing. I often think that I could end up in this situation -- life can change overnight,” he notes.

"Besides knowing their numbers, I also want to know their story and debunk the cliché of homeless people which, in my mind, is an old man, alone, who walks around with a lot of bags,” says Iman. “I want to put a face, an age, an origin, a story to the people who live on the street.” That’s one of the aims of Nuit de la Solidarité: enabling citizens to become aware of the reality of life on the streets. "I volunteered because I was horrified by the words of the minister who said there were only 50 homeless people in Paris," explains the young lawyer.

Declining interviews

It’s now 10pm and the 19 groups in the 20th arrondissement get ready to hit the field. Team 16, led by Landa, heads towards Place de la Porte de Montreuil, the starting point of their route. "Take a good look at the garage entrances," she advises.

The counting begins on a cold Paris night.
The counting begins on a cold Paris night. Guillaume Guguen, France 24

Arriving at the edge of the square, the team heads for an area with parked vehicles where a flea market is held during the day.

In the back of one of the cars, a man wraps himself in a duvet. Seeing the volunteers with their light blue vests approaching, the occupant signals that he does not want to be disturbed.

Further on, there’s another man trying to sleep on a makeshift bed under a walkway. Iman and Solène approach him and introduce themselves. The man does not want to be questioned. "I am a soldier," is the only piece of information he divulges. Volunteers do not insist but note his presence on a form before continuing their journey.

As they move away, a truck from Restaurants du Coeur, a French charity delivering meals to the homeless, stops next to the man to offer him food. "He’s known to the association, he’s been using this space for a while," Christian observes.

A vehicle for a home

As the team moves around, they pay attention to the vehicles parked in the area. There are trucks bearing Bulgarian registration plates. Around half a dozen vehicles are occupied by members of the Roma community. They don't speak French, but some of them can manage some German. Nathalie comes forward to help, but quickly realises she’s forgotten her high school German. "Well, that’s what eight years of learning German is worth,” she shrugs. “We communicate by using Google Translate on our mobiles.”

The team manages to glean some information. Some arrived in France two months ago and work in scrap metal dumps. Do they have urgent needs? A doctor? Access to showers? One of the trucks is occupied by a couple and two children, aged two and six months respectively. Their vehicle serves as a home. Landa calls the relevant social services unit to signal their presence and a team from the unit will be heading to see the family soon. In total, the team counts a dozen people in this place.

It's almost midnight and the group has not covered half of their planned route. Landa calls the 19th arrondissement town hall team to let them know they’re running late. Instructions are given to wind up their count at 1am, even if their entire area has not been covered. The team now starts to hurry along, there are about ten streets to cover. But there’s nothing to report. Landa takes one last, conscientious look at a tram stop to see if anyone is sleeping on the benches.

At five minutes past midnight, the team is done. They have to hand over the cards to the town hall. Fifteen people are counted in their zone. "In the Amandiers sector, between Père Lachaise [Paris’s iconic cemetery] and Ménilmontant, they counted 18 people," reports Nathalie who is on the phone with another team.

The mayor of Paris has until the end of March to publish the Nuit de la solidarité count. One thing however is certain for the volunteers of team 16: "If each team in the 20th arrondissement returns with the same number as us, we will exceed the 50 – just in this arrondissement.”

(This article is a translation of the original, which appeared in French)

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