In 1933, George Orwell published an account of his life among the most destitute residents of Paris, describing the city’s slums as a place for eccentrics who “have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent.”
Homelessness in Paris has a long, and often proud, history. Orwell’s life as a Paris down-and-out is grinding yet strangely ebullient, full of intriguing characters with madcap schemes to bring in a few francs. Homelessness in Paris no picnic, but Orwell seems to suggest that it’s preferable to tramping the streets of London.
Many still believe that the French capital is a relatively good place to be poor. There is widespread provision of “low threshold” services and accommodation, meaning that virtually any homeless person can get ahold of food, shelters and other support, without having to deliver anything in return. France has a long-established dedication to social justice (even socialism in many cases), dating back to the revolutionary ideals of egalité and fraternité. In France, as Orwell puts it, “the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.”
In a 2009 poll,
of French people expressed a feeling of solidarity toward the homeless.
This presents a striking contrast to other cities around the world where begging is criminalized and the homeless are resented as bums and scroungers. The same poll showed that 56 percent of French people believe that they, too, could become homeless someday.
While it all sounds rather utopian, this comradely attitude to the homeless may be counteracting actual change in Paris and around France.
The national statistics office warned that the number of homeless in France increased to 141,500 — up 50 percent between 2001 and 2012 — owing to population growth, rising house prices and the economic crisis. The capital offers a wider range of services and a greater opportunity for employment than elsewhere, so it almost certainly hosts a very large proportion of France’s homeless population, and Parisians believe that the numbers are increasing sharply.
It’s always hard to actually count the homeless, but the most recent roundups estimate (a lowballed figure) of at least 90,000 in a city of 2.2 million. But the lack of numbers makes for a difficult problem to solve. So certainly, bring on the kindness and solidarity — and appreciate the romantic eccentricity that Orwell found. But Parisians may also need to add a dash of pragmatism to their efforts to combat poverty.
Why you should care
Because France’s compassionate attitude toward poverty stands out among Western countries, but so do its thousands of homeless residents.