A French homeless shelter adapts quickly, but not adequately, to virus lockdown (2/3)

Homeless people sleep inside the Festival palace at Cannes, France, March 24, 2020.
Homeless people sleep inside the Festival palace at Cannes, France, March 24, 2020. REUTERS - ERIC GAILLARD

Social workers handling precarious populations have been forced to adapt quickly, often with little guidance and resources, to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. A receptionist at a reception centre in Normandy recounts his stressful days shortly after France went into a nationwide lockdown last month.


"We had to take drastic measures," explains Erwan* – a social worker, who prefers to remain anonymous – working in a shelter in France’s northern Normandy region. The emergency shelter provides homeless families with a warm place to spend the night, but these days, the coronavirus epidemic has forced Erwan and his colleagues to review and adapt their way of working.

Recounting his experience on the first day of France’s nationwide lockdown, which began on March 17, Erwan shakes his head. “It was a mess,” reveals the young man in his 30s. "There was no preparation.”

Erwan and his colleagues had tried to alert their superiors in early March about possible changes required during the health crisis. But they received no reply.

"The centre only closed on Wednesday, March 18, a day after the lockdown started and after drawing up a list of people who would be staying in the centre," he explains.

"So we started this confinement by risking our lives. We had to help people fill in their exit permits. But it's complicated. We're helping people who are mostly of foreign origin, so it's difficult to explain the directives and instructions," he notes. "People didn't realise what was going on at all. They kept going out all day long. Some left at 9am and returned at 9pm as if nothing had happened..."

"Those were the first days. I thought we weren't going to make it," he sighs.

From a night to a 24-hour shelter

The centre where Erwan works is a former office complex, which gets converted into a homeless shelter every winter, from November 1 to March 31.

"The good news is that the government has decided to maintain the winter centres until May 31 due to the health crisis," Erwan smiles. "But the truth is that we need another centre, another building. This one is a place to sleep in the winter. It's not meant to be a 24-hour shelter. Our mission changed overnight,” he explains.

"Before, we used to receive people in the evening, often quite late. We gave them food and a bed, and they left the next morning. Now we're working on community life for the duration of the confinement."

Coping with new sanitation and social distancing measures

With the new health and sanitary requirements, the centre had to make choices and limit the number of people it accommodates to 70 permanent residents. "From now on, any departure is final," explains Erwan.

"Since we can't totally comply with hygiene and safety standards, we try to keep everyone confined and hope that we don’t have any coronavirus cases. For example, the only real barrier measure we've been able to apply is to create canteen dining shifts."

"We know there are still people out there on the street. The emergency teams want to send them to us to fill spots that have opened up, but how can we be sure that the person arriving is not a carrier of the virus?" he asks, worried.

Read more >> Vulnerable people more isolated than ever during France’s coronavirus lockdown

Another question also remains unanswered: "What are we going to do when we get the first case? It's likely that the other people housed here will contract it within 24 hours, given the conditions," says Erwan. Fallback solutions are currently being studied to transfer healthy and at-risk people if they do have a coronavirus case, he explains.

But it’s not all bleak news: the authorities have made some reinforcements to the system. "We've had human reinforcements. Resources, especially from night patrols, have been deployed to the centres. They’ve also given us more financial resources.”

It's not ‘if we’ll get the disease, we just wonder when’

The team is poorly equipped to cope with the daily routine and continue their missions. "We put in a request for equipment the day the lockdown began, and were told that we weren't a priority. I do understand that: healthworkers are a priority," says Erwan.

So the team makes do with what they have. They found an old stock of masks dating back 30 years or so stored in a basement and outdated hydro-alcoholic gel. "Better than nothing," shrugs Erwan.

"We also got some medical scrubs delivered last week. Five outfits in size XXL when there are at least 10 of us working at the centre every day. So it's useless and we don't wear them," he says. "Anyway, it's hard to refuse to cuddle with the kids at the centre. So my containment measures are simply to roll up my clothes and wash myself when I get home to try not to contaminate my partner, " he explains.

"I already have several sick colleagues who think they've contracted the virus. They have the symptoms but have not been tested. We're not asking ourselves if we’ll get the disease, it's just a question of when,” he explains. "We're just trying to push the date as far back as possible so that our colleagues on leave or on a break can take over."

* Name changed to protect identity

This story is a translation of the original in French.


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