Wandering around Central Paris through the day gives the impression of a very clean, very affluent modern Western city. There is little of the urban decay which is very visible in Athens, nor do you see the struggle for survival as you wander among the expensive cafes and posh shops. I mentioned the lack of homelessness in Paris to some Parisians I met the other night and they looked at me and laughed. “Oh yes there is”, they said “you just don’t see it because through the day because police keep them moving along”.
Chateau station on the Metro becomes a bit of a hub at night for homeless people, who go down there for shelter and perhaps a bit of sleep. Directly above the Metro is a square, where the Parisian indignatos meet under a huge banner announcing “We are all Greeks“. A far smaller movement than in Spain, it reminded me of Occupy, but when I mentioned Occupy to some of the people around, they looked puzzled, before one finally agreed that yes, Occupy Wall Street was part of the same movement and pointing to a small sign with the “99% vs the 1%” slogan written on it.
Around 30 people were gathered there, spending the night on the hard concrete in sleeping bags, and I was told that around half to two thirds of them were homeless. As has happened at many other such oppositional encampments, through the day, it is an overtly political space challenging the system, while at night, it becomes a refuge for those who face the implications of the system.
France has a history of radical protest of homeless people. In 2006, long before both the Occupy movement, the Indignatos and even the Egyptians had used the tactic of occupying public space for make their demands visible, Les Enfants de Don Quichotte (The Children of Don Quioxte) set up an encampment, initially on the banks of the Canal Saint Mairtin in Paris, before spreading to other French cities including Nantes , Lille , Grenoble , Toulouse and Bordeaux to highlight the issue of homelessness and demand that everyone had a same warm home. After initial outrage, the action appeared to be successful, gaining the support of several prominent French politicians, including Hollande.
In France there is a constitutional right to accommodation within the Constitution of 26th October 1946.
10. The Nation shall provide the individual and the family the conditions necessary for their development.
11. It guarantees to all, especially children, mothers and elderly workers, protection of health, material security, rest and recreation. Every human being who, because of his age, physical or mental condition, the economic situation, is unable to work has the right to obtain the community of adequate means of subsistence.
This is strengthened by legislation in 1982 (The right to housing is a fundamental right); further legislation in 1990 (to guarantee the right to housing is a duty for the entire nation.) and supported by the decision of the constitutional council in 1995 (the availability of decent housing is a constitutional objective). Yet still in 2006 there was substantial homelessness. The Children of Don Quioxte demanded an “enforceable right” noting that although this may be all very well in principle, the legal claims made to enforce it were long winded, complex and beyond the capacity of many homeless people. This concession was granted in two stages. In 2008, legislation was brought in giving an enforceable right to many people on the margins including homeless, working poor, single women with children and people living in unfit housing., while in January this year it was extended to all citizens. Yet still there is substantial homelessness.
The public shelters which have been brought in to provide crisis accommodation are, I am told, overrun with vermin, with several people telling me tales of scratches and bites that they had received while living there – the mice run openly around the shelter and are so accustomed to people that they have no qualm about running over furniture or into the beds, biting and scratching at the residents. Faced with that, many prefer to spend their nights on the street.
Meanwhile the Children of Don Quioxte have been co-opted by social services, who now run a bus providing temporary accommodation, with the promise of permanent housing which I am told does not materialise. The view from the homeless people that I met was that they had sold out. That access to the project is now rigidly controlled by the social work department who insist on collecting vast amounts of data and demanding intrusive psychiatric assessments before they will work with homeless people. People are very skeptical of information collected by the state, with proposals three years ago to link together all the information held on citizens into one large database and retain indefinitely.
It would appear that the tourist image of Paris as a clean, modern city which looks after its population is not all that it seems.