Two adults, two kids, one square metre each: trapped in a shoebox under lockdown

Activists have warned that lockdown conditions for the homeless and people in overcrowded dwellings threaten to worsen the coronavirus pandemic.
Activists have warned that lockdown conditions for the homeless and people in overcrowded dwellings threaten to worsen the coronavirus pandemic. © Philippe Desmazes, AFP

A nationwide lockdown intended to halt the spread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic has turned ordinary hardship into a living nightmare for French families living in cramped and overcrowded dwellings, with experts warning that homelessness and inadequate housing will only worsen the health crisis. 

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Ramata’s weary voice is barely audible, drowned out by the surrounding clamour as her children’s cries bounce off the mildewed walls of their tiny abode.

With France under a nationwide lockdown, the mother of two has been ordered to stay at home – except she doesn't have one. Her “home”, so to speak, is an 8-square-metre hotel room in the Seine-et-Marne department, east of Paris, which she shares with her partner, their two children and a legion of cockroaches.

“The place is filthy, the air we breathe is unhealthy and my kids are ill all the time,” says the 30-year-old native of Burkina Faso, attempting to shush her lively 2-year-old daughter and a toddler one month shy of his first birthday. 

“The Samu Social in Paris (an emergency service for the homeless and others in distress) got us this room in November and we’ve been stuck here since,” she tells FRANCE 24.

Ramata’s room is located on the ground floor. There’s just enough space for a bunk bed, a sink, a radiator and a small fridge. The walls are covered in mould, with electric wires left dangling, and there are frequent leaks. The shared toilets and shower down the corridor are also “constantly clogged”. 

When social workers visited the premises earlier this year, they declared the hotel insalubrious and unfit. Local officials have since relocated most families, but they left Ramata’s and 15 others behind, saying it was up to the Samu Social to find them alternative accommodation.

“I even considered living out in the street, just to get away from this room,” she says. “But a doctor persuaded me not to, saying it would be too dangerous for the children.”

The walls and ceiling of Ramata's hotel room are covered in mould.
The walls and ceiling of Ramata's hotel room are covered in mould. © Picture sent by Ramata to FRANCE 24

Despite her repeated pleas for help, Ramata has no choice but to keep paying the room’s monthly rent of €150. To foot the bill, her partner, a forklift operator, continues to go to work despite the risk of catching the virus – and bringing it back with him to their tiny dwelling. His absence means Ramata has had to quit working as a cleaner.

“I’m terrified for my children,” she says, stressing the lack of even basic hygiene standards at the hotel. “But the hardest part is not having any space for them to play.”

Ramata says she has no choice but to take the kids outside once a day so they get some air and stretch their legs, “even though the hotel manager says we must stay inside”.

Getting food is another challenge. The hotel’s communal kitchen has been shut since the start of the lockdown, and the remaining families have just three microwave ovens between them.

“We used to get supplies from the Restos du Coeur (a charity providing free meals to the poor and homeless), but they’ve had to stop because of the lockdown,” says Ramata.  

Adding to their woes, the manager has decided to put a fresh coat of paint on the premises in the middle of the lockdown, thereby worsening Ramata’s already frequent asthma attacks.

“And the hotel continues to take in new customers from God knows where,” she adds. “What if they carry the virus with them?”

‘Catastrophe’

Ramata’s plight is indicative of what advocacy groups have described as a “catastrophe” in the making.

“The battle against the virus is centred on home confinement; so clearly, having adequate housing is of the essence,” says Jean-Baptiste Eyraud, spokesperson of the Droit au logement (Right to housing) charity, which supports families like Ramata’s. 

He adds: “Instead, for millions of people, the lockdown is not going to help the fight against this epidemic – in fact, it risks doing the very opposite.”

Homelessness and overcrowding in cramped dwellings are both conducive to violence, sickness and flight, Eyraud explains. Getting people off the street and out of unhealthy environments is crucial to stopping the spread of the disease, he adds.

According to the latest report by the Fondation Abbé Pierre, France’s most authoritative source on homelessness, almost 4 million people in France are “inadequately housed”. They include the homeless, people in migrant shelters, “travelling communities” (including gypsies) and some 25,000 people living – like Ramata’s family – in hotel rooms. Almost a million people live in conditions of “acute” overcrowding.    

Following a public outcry triggered by reports of police fining homeless people for violating the lockdown, the government has announced a €50 million emergency package to find shelter for those sleeping rough. It prolonged a winter shelter programme that houses around 14,000 people and promised to requisition an extra 10,000 hotel rooms. It also extended its annual “winter truce”, during which homeowners are banned from evicting their tenants, until the end of May.

However, requisitioning hotels is “only part of the solution, because in most cases it means people won’t be able to cook for themselves”, Eyraud argues. “The real solution is to requisition empty homes, starting with the tens of thousands of empty residences used exclusively for tourism, for instance on Airbnb. After all, we’re in an emergency – and there’s no tourists anyway.”  

Sharing a bed with a teenage son

Advocacy groups are also pressing the government to agree to a temporary rent freeze, warning that many struggling households have seen their income crippled by the economy’s partial shutdown.

Although she doubts she’ll ever get one, a suspension in rent payments would be a blessing for Fernanda (not her real name), a single mother who lives with her 13-year-old son in a small studio in the French capital’s 18th arrondissement.

The 50-year-old home carer has been out of work since the start of the lockdown. She’s waiting to hear whether she will get part of her stipend for a side job at a nearby nursery school, and still doesn’t know how she will pay the rent for April. 

In the meantime, she seems more troubled by the effect the confinement may be having on her son, who is getting to the age when, “the last thing you want is to have your parent next to you around-the-clock”.

“It’s very tough, being stuck together – and in each other’s way – all day long,” says the West African native, who is also anxious about the limited help she can give her son as he grapples with the new challenge of being home-schooled.

>> ‘What public service is about’: French schools open to children of health workers battling virus

“Most parents are able to help their kids with their classes and homework, but there isn’t much I can do to help out,” she explains. “So I try at least not to disturb him.”

Unlike many French people who continue to venture out on a daily basis, Fernanda takes the lockdown very seriously. She goes out just once a week for shopping and takes no chances, terrified at the idea that she might “fall ill and leave [her] son with no-one to look after him”.

Over the past two weeks, her basketball-loving son has stepped outside just once to take a few shots at a nearby hoop. To make up for the lack of outdoor exercise, she encourages him to get some practise through online training programmes.

The lockdown has exacerbated an already difficult situation for Fernanda, compounding her sense of guilt over the fact that her adolescent son doesn’t have a room of his own.

“He’s 13 and he still has to share a bed with his mother,” she sighs. “How much longer can he cope without a space of his own?”

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