For Homeless Parisians, a Lockdown Dilemma: Whom to Ask for Help? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
With France entering its fifth week of coronavirus shutdown, the plight of homeless people in Paris has become acute.
SourceMehdi Taamallah/NurPhoto via Getty

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They have nowhere to isolate, and much of their safety net is locked down.

By David Keohane, Domitille Alain and Leila Abboud

On an ordinary day, some 3,500 people live on the streets of Paris, their tents and makeshift beds largely ignored by throngs of passersby in the City of Light. To get by, they rely on a patchwork of services from charities and government, as well as by begging for spare change or food.

But these are not ordinary days. With France entering its fifth week of coronavirus shutdown, the plight of homeless people in Paris has become acute, with access to soup kitchens, public toilets and showers, and daytime shelters severely curtailed.

Everyone is afraid to give.

Rahim, a homeless immigrant

With streets quiet, there are fewer people to ask for help or money, and shelters that could provide refuge bring with them the risk of infection. Police have ticketed or hassled homeless people for breaking quarantine rules, despite their having no place to go. “It’s more difficult for me now … everyone is afraid to give,” says Rahim, a 49-year-old who came to France from Morocco nine years ago and who begs for money in the north of Paris. “I don’t have anywhere to sleep tonight.”

In a city that has long had a more permissive attitude toward its homeless population than other world capitals, the coronavirus is stressing the informal system of charities and resources that people rely on to survive. Some warn of an impending disaster despite the government announcing measures to help, including $71 million for emergency housing of 10,000 beds, suspending evictions until May and opening 73 new shelters for the sick.

As of April 4, the government says it has lodged 172,000 homeless people and secured 7,800 hotel rooms that could be made available to those in need. “We have to do more in the coming days to avoid a human catastrophe … people will die,” says Christophe Robert, head of the Abbé Pierre Foundation, a homeless charity.

In the north of Paris last month, Ma Sarr handed out plastic-wrapped sandwiches, tea and coffee to the scores of homeless people queueing up between metal crowd-control barriers set up by her organization, Solidarité et Partage Jouy Le Moutier. 

Speaking through a protective mask, the longtime volunteer says she knows many of the homeless on the route she drives twice weekly in her van packed with supplies. Sarr is determined to show up for them now: “They are really afraid, but … they are used to us being here, they wait for us.”

French President Emmanuel Macron last month visited a former hotel in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, which the government has requisitioned to house roughly 450 homeless people. However, progress on new beds has been slow, according to charities, with only 2,000 opened so far. Only six centers for sick people have opened. 

FRANCE-HEALTH-VIRUS-HOMELESS

A French Popular Relief volunteer (foreground) talks with a homeless man during a distribution of food and clothes.

Source JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty

Other measures include extending for two months the so-called winter truce, which usually bars evictions in France from November through March. “We salute what the government has done to date, but more is needed given the great need and risk of humanitarian crisis,” says Sami Chataya, a Red Cross official. 

Charities also struggle with tougher working conditions. Their staff and volunteers, many of whom are older retirees, are staying at home in increasing numbers due to child care issues or fear of infection.

Homeless charity Emmaus reports that 35 percent of its permanent staff are no longer able to come to work, while the Red Cross has cut back its daily visits to homeless people by about 10 percent. 

Meanwhile, some facilities in Paris where homeless people can go to sleep or shower during the day have had to curtail services because of social distancing. One such center in the first arrondissement can take only 50 people a day, compared with 200 before the crisis.

Many of the charities struggle to obtain protective gear for their volunteers. The Red Cross managed to secure 25,000 masks recently, but that represents only about three days’ worth for its roughly 1,500 staff members and 9,700 volunteers. “If we had more masks we would be able to better serve people,” Chataya says.

Teams that usually roam the city to check on the homeless report having run-ins with police and even being yelled at by residents for being outside. “They are stopped by police four to six times a day and criticized for being irresponsible in maintaining service that is supposedly nonessential,” wrote Samira El Alaoui of the charity Les Enfants du Canal in an email to government officials.

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By David Keohane, Domitille Alain and Leila Abboud

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2020.

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