Student Reflections

Homelessness in Paris

Emma Pendl-Robinson
April 5, 2018

Related imageIn Paris I am staying near le Jardin du Luxembourg (the Luxembourg Garden) and spend much of my time in the Sixth Arrondissement: Saint-Germain-des-Prés. These are some of the nicer parts of Paris. I was very surprised by the number of homeless people I see on the street. When I go on my evening walks to Monoprix (the Walmart of France) to pick up food for the night, I pass the same people, a middle aged man in a Santa suit who tries to hit on me, a women who sleeps in the middle of the sidewalk, a woman and child on a mattress near the Nike store. Another block or two I would run into a woman and her child and there is a man in a sleeping bag with his dog. In the United States, homelessness is a big issue and for better or worse there are various efforts to get people off the street.

So what is Paris’ policy towards homelessness and why are there people on the street?

The Situation

Homeless manThe National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE)  collects, analyzes, and disseminates information on the French economy and society. It defines homelessness as: persons frequenting residential shelters and free restaurants, a person is considered to be homeless on any given day if he or she spent the previous night in sheltered accommodation or if he or she slept in a place not intended for habitation (on the street, in a squat etc.).

In 2012 the INSEE conducted a homeless survey which bared surprising results about who was homeless.

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Whereas homelessness in major cities is a pervasive problem, there is a massive uptick in the amount of people on the streets in France. In 2012, over 140,000 people were homeless in France, an increase of over 50% in 11 years time. The major sources of the increase in homelessness is immigrants seeking asylum in France, which explains why women and children have seen the largest uptick in need.

Whereas an increase in homelessness in any population is concerning, it is worth paying attention to the 14% of homeless people who have college educations and 10% who have a college degree. These tend to be people from more affluent backgrounds (39% compared to 17%). Those who did not complete college were mainly from a disadvantaged background. This trend signals that there is downward social mobility, a college education no longer guarantees employment and that it is difficult for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed.

Life on the Streets

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One of the many camps in which the homeless congregate

Julien Damon, a sociologist at Sciences Po University, explains how homelessness in Paris, is less stigmatized than in other cities such as London and Berlin. Begging is legal, and loitering is acceptable. In fact, “Paris is seen as an extremely tolerant city and generous in its offer of aid and social protection. It’s perhaps the EU city that spends most in terms of public policy on shelter and these issues”.

However, the government provides mixed signals. In 1994 begging was legalized in France under three conditions: it is not aggressive, it does not use children, and it does not disturb public order. If any of the three conditions are broken then the person doing the begging could face a €38 fine. However, there are numerous cases of beggars being arrested for disturbing tourists. For example Christmas of 2011, the  government put a ban on begging near tourist attractions to “protect” shoppers.

The homeless self-report worse health than the general public. This is most likely due to lower access to doctors and medical treatment. In France, 501 homeless people died in the year 2017 alone — for perceptive this is twice the number of people who died in terrorists attacks against France in the twenty-first century.

Even though Paris spends more on social services there is the glaring problem of lack of emergency shelter space. Around 60% of people who request a bed in one of those shelters does not get one. For those who do not receive emergency housing, there are places, called “foyers socials“, where people who are homeless can rent a place to sleep for the night. These rooms which cost between €40 and €50 per night — are not a feasible proposition for most homeless people. Many others sleep on the street with a sleeping bag (such as the people I pass on my way to Monoprix) and others live in tent camps.

Paris claims to be tolerant, however there are incidents of the police shutting down and clearing tent camps. In these small camps thousands of migrants are living in poor conditions. I do not believe that the evacuation of these tent sites are a valid policy solution. For many such as Najib Omar, when his original encampment was shut down, he just moved to a different one in the city. Thus tent camp removals seem more like a game of cat and mouse than substantive policy.

A gymnasium with beds for homeless people located under the Esplanade des Invalides. Photo: AFP

What is the Government Doing?

The main source of income for French-speaking homeless is Active Solidarity Income (Revenu de Solidarité Active – RSA); France’s version of unemployment benefits. As of June 2015, 2.45 million households were receiving the RSA. However there are some major flaws with the system. For example about 68% of those eligible for the Activity RSA are not registered, notably due to the complexity of the system and lack of understanding of how it works. Also the floor RSA amount is far below the monetary poverty line (€1,015 per month). I am currently living in Paris and there is no way I could live on even €1,015 per month – this is a list of prices in Paris to give a sense of the true cost of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Floor RSA amounts in 2015 (i.e. family will have an income of no less than this amount regardless of employment).
Emmanuel Macron wants “worthy” housing for migrants
Emmanuel Macron wants “worthy” housing for migrants

One of Emmanuel Macron‘s (France’s President) campaign promises was no one would be sleeping in the street by the end of 2017. This did not happen. “Housing First” (“Logement d’abord“) is a five year plan which will hopefully provide housing for 50,000 migrants and homeless people. Like most issues in politics, the end result feels like too little to late. What confuses me is how Macron can claim he cares about housing and decent living conditions for the homeless. Yet, over the summer, he imposed cutting housing benefits — this cut will inflict the greatest harm on students and the poor.

What do Parisians Think?

Christian Pages.
Christian Page

Reactions from Parisians are mixed and seem a little contradictory. 75% feel solidarity towards the homeless, but there is a “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) mentality which seems to be just as pervasive.

Have you heard of Christian Page? He was the head waiter at a fancy restaurant in Paris and due to unfortunate circumstances found himself on the streets of Paris in April 2015. Now on the street with a smart phone in tow he took to Twitter and started to denounce Paris’ anti-vagrancy measures and the high mortality rate among the homeless. With over 20,000 twitter followers behind him, Christian Page is certainly making a splash.
Locations of homeless shelters in Paris.

Whereas the theory of assisting the homeless find housing garners public support, when it comes to drawing up plans, a much different narrative emerges. In 2016, there was outrage among residents of the 16th arrondissement (a wealthier neighborhood in Paris) when there were plans to build a homeless shelter in the neighborhood.  The residents where infuriated with the government and wanted the shelter to be built… well… not in their backyard.  Manuel Valls, France’s prime minister reasoned, “More than 30,000 people are given shelter (in Paris) each day by 78 homeless shelters but none exist in the 16th arrondissement”. I tend to agree with  Manuel Valls that all arrondissement ought to do its part, but it is not easy to convince residents that taking in homeless people is in their best interests. Especially considering the best press surrounding migrants and the homeless community as a whole.

What does this story say about us? and How to more forward?

The stories of the many law abiding homeless in France often are left tactic and fear of migrant terrorists are often exaggerated. Unfortunately, the xenophobia which plagues the disenfranchised group is not unique to Paris and it is something with which the United States also struggles. Currently, the American Civil Liberties Union – ACLU of Texas –  is taking the city of Houston to court over a new set of ordinances that essentially make being homeless a crime. I am proud to say that my cousin, Trisha Trigilio, is the ACLU lawyer leading the homeless Houstonians’ lawsuit.

As private citizens, it is imperative to aid those who are less fortunate and stand up against governments or people who treat others unfairly. Christian Page explains, “I’m not a spokesperson, I’m just committed to the cause.”   

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Editor’s Notes:

As I was reading, there seemed to be many conflicting statistics about the number of people on the streets, the laws surrounding being homeless, and the state benefits provided to those who are homeless. Thus, I attempt to provide cities where I found said information. When there was conflicting information, I tended to side with the L’Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques. It is worth bearing in mind that INSEE’s data is older (2012).

My work is susceptible to mis-translations, because I read sources in French and I am not fluent in the language. I apologize in advance.

Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, I did not feel comfortable taking photos of the homeless. All photos in the blog are from other published sites. If you wish to see from where the photo was lifted, simply click on the photo and it is hyperlinked to the original page.