The Paris of people’s imagination – a city of lights, love, and luxury labels – is an illusion. The reality, at times unbearable for visitors, is a large, often ugly, city with problems – litter, vermin, pollution – like any other. But no issue is more pressing than homelessness. To try to understand what’s going on, let’s consider statistics, public attitudes, government strategies, and the photography of the capital’s homeless residents.
The national picture
Official INSEE statistics from 2012 put the number of people living without shelter in France at 141,500, an increase of 44% since 2001.
Broadly speaking, homelessness is a middle-aged problem. Almost half of people living on the street are between the ages of 30 and 49, compared with 26% of people over 18 and 25% over 50. Women account for 38% of the homeless population and there are some 30,000 children growing up without a home.
In 2016, a broader study by the Fondation Abbé Pierre, an organization that helps people find a place to stay, found that 3.8 million people were residing in inadequate accommodation and 12.1 million had been affected by the housing crisis.
Another INSEE study from 2016 found that 14% of French homeless people have a university education and one in ten have a high school diploma. It also concluded that educational level is no longer a guarantee of stability.
Most shocking of all, an average of 480 homeless people are reported to have died in the streets of France every year, though the exact figure is thought to be six times higher. In the first week of 2017, nine such deaths were registered.
The situation in the capital
Nowhere is the problem graver than in Paris. Urban homelessness rates, excluding the capital, grew by 11% in the same 11-year period mentioned above. In Paris, the increase was a staggering 84%. While exact figures are hard to come by, estimates put the number of rough sleepers in the capital at 30,000.
So, what has caused this stark escalation in Paris? While it is not a new problem, homelessness has worsened since the financial crisis of 2008, morphing into something that can affect not just the isolated or disaffected in society. For one thing, the fact that salaries have not risen at the same rate as rental prices means that, for many people, having a job no longer guarantees housing security.
Another serious contributing factor is historical underinvestment in the housing stock, namely the building of new, affordable housing to meet the demands of a growing population.
In the past year, particularly following the closure of the Calais migrant camp, much has also been made of the influx of asylum seekers to Paris and its impact on the homeless population.
When an asylum seeker arrives in France, they have the right to stay in a Centre d’Accueil pour Demandeurs d’Asile until their application has been processed. If no place can be found for them, they may be sent to a CHU, an emergency homeless shelter. In this second scenario, which has become more common given the stress the system is under, the competition for bed space among homeless people is heightened.
Nevertheless, the newest, most vulnerable arrivals to the country ought not to be blamed. Instead, responsibility lies with those who created the pre-existing economic and infrastructure problems.
How do the French – and Parisians – view homelessness?
Compared to their European neighbors, French people are fairly sympathetic, more often citing societal causes for homeless people’s situation rather than personal ones. According to a 2009 study, 75% of French people felt some form of solidarity with rough sleepers and 56% thought they might one day be in their position.
While these statistics possibly represent the middle ground of the opinion spectrum, Parisians have demonstrated rather more extreme points of view, good and bad.
In 2011, a young lawyer, Joël Catherin, made headlines in France and abroad for his simple acts of kindness. Starting with an elderly Romanian woman, Ioana, who slept rough by his home near La Madeleine, he began crafting witty, thoughtful, and attention-grabbing placards and distributing them to the city’s beggars. Unlike other European countries, begging in France has never been criminalized, another indication of widespread tolerance.
Over in the 16th arrondissement, considered to be Paris’ wealthiest, plans to open a temporary homeless shelter provoked fury from residents in March 2016. A town hall meeting, called to discuss the proposed 200-bed, three-year facility, and the first of any sort in the neighborhood, descended into anarchy, with incensed locals complaining to the media about property prices, personal safety, and aesthetics.
What is the solution?
First and foremost, Paris is working to increase the number of social housing units built each year. French law requires 20% of homes to meet these requirements and this stock is increasing by 6,000 properties annually. By 2020, an additional 1,000 chambres de bonnes (former maids’ quarters) will have been converted into suitable accommodation.
Further investment in services, at the state and municipal level, is also needed. For example, there simply are not enough beds in CHUs to go around, migrant crisis or not. Worse, INSEE’s 2012 study found that 48% of homeless people would rather not use these shelters given a perceived lack of hygiene and security concerns.
For visitors to and residents of Paris, the first thing to do is to remember that homeless people are part of our city, too. People who deserve to be noticed and respected, not ignored, mocked, or photographed like statues in a park.
Note: All of the above images were taken as part of the ‘Prises de Rue’ project organized by the organization Deuxième Marche. Carried out with the help of Wipplay.com and Olympus, it saw 15 homeless men and women photograph Paris from their own perspectives between November and December 2014. A select group of 27 images were displayed outside city hall in March 2015 and can be purchased from the charity’s website.