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A Little-Known Perspective on the Life of Homeless People in France—Their Own

Tents from charity 'Les Enfants de Don Quichotte' on the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin, Paris. From Wikipedia Creative Commons 2.0

Tents from charity ‘Les Enfants de Don Quichotte’ on the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin, Paris. From Wikipedia Creative Commons 2.0

There are many preconceived ideas about the lives of the homeless in France. The most widespread amongst them are as follows:

  • “It's a declining trend in France.”

The total number of homeless people in France (excluding refugees in the camps in Calais) is difficult to estimate, but the FNARS, a national organisation for social inclusion and re-insertion, estimates the figure to be between 150,000 and 240,000 people. The Fondation Abbé Pierre, a homeless charity based on the benevolence of its namesake, a 20th century Catholic priest, estimates that there are 50% more homeless people in France than three years ago — including 30,000 children.

  • “To be homeless is an active choice.”

A study shows that only 6% of homeless people choose to live on the streets.

  • “The homeless don't work.”

Many homeless people are employed on fixed-term or temporary contracts.

In an attempt to correct the narrative about the homeless, some homeless people in France over the years have told their stories in their own words on social media. Let's meet three of them: Stéphane, Francis and ‘SDF75′, who all have at one point offered insight into their lives on their respective blogs.

‘I am a computer programmer first and a homeless person second’

SDF75 explained why he wanted to create a different blog:

Pourquoi un Site Internet en tant que SDF ? Je pourrais répondre simplement : Pourquoi pas ? Mais pour être logique, je dirai qu'avant même d'être SDF, je suis d'abord Informaticien et que je désirais déjà avoir mon propre site internet.

Quand on colle sans arrêt à certaines catégories de gens une étiquette complètement irréelle et calomnieuse, notamment à propos des SDF, alors ne vous étonnez pas que soit utilisée une apparence totalement inverse pour la démonter…

Why would a homeless person make a website? I could simply say, ‘Why not?’ But to be logical, I will say that I am a computer programmer first and a homeless person second…I would simply like to have my own website.

When we constantly brand certain groups of people, particularly the homeless, with a completely unrealistic and defamatory label, don't be surprised when I chose to showcase the opposite image in order to disprove these false ideas…

SDF75 doesn’t hesitate to bust prejudices by publishing “show off” photos (to use his own words) and give regular updates on his work as a programmer and of his sporting activities:

J'ai travaillé pendant plus de 13 ans. Des emplois stables, mais aussi de l'intérim, ce qui m'a permis d'exercer des postes très différents, et ainsi de progresser plus vite en compétences. En ajoutant ce que j'ai fait comme services aux particuliers (dépannages, upgrades, installations de Windows, montage de configurations personnalisées, sans oublier de la formation à internet.), j'ai environ 16 ans d'expérience. Actuellement, je perçois le RSA, et bien sûr, en plus je fais la manche. Oui, car si on veut rester clean et vivre décemment, on ne vis pas avec de la morale, mais avec des espèces…
Et c'est ce qui me permet de maintenir mes connaissances.

I worked for over 13 years. Stable jobs, but also temporary contracts, which allowed me to hold a range of different permissions, and in this way to quickly develop a strong skill base. If we include my work with individuals (repairs, upgrades, installing Windows, personalised configurations, not to mention internet training), I have around 16 years experience. Now, I claim job seekers benefit, and of course I beg as well. Because if you want to stay clean and make a decent living, you don't live by morals, but by cash…
And this is what allows me to maintain my knowledge.

SDF75 dans la salle de musculation - capture d'ecran d'une video de son blog

SDF75 in the gym – screenshot from a video on his blog

‘Something happened which turned my life upside down’

In 2006, Stéphane shared the story of what pushed him to the streets:

Après avoir travaillé comme chauffeur de direction puis un licenciement,  j'ai créé une petite affaire de pressing à domicile sur Paris.  J'y ai mis toutes mes économies et toute mon énergie. Au moment ou les choses ont commencé a aller mieux,  il s'est produit un évènement qui a fait basculer ma vie.  Ma femme ( j'étais marie depuis 7 ans avec deux enfants) décida de divorcer car elle souhaitait une situation stable.  Après en avoir parler avec elle pendant plusieurs jours et essayer de la convaincre de me soutenir, elle décida de partir.  Un après-midi,  je suis rentrer à la maison, et là,  plus personne, plus de vêtements, juste un mots pour m'expliquer son départ. Je me suis retrouvé seul dans cet appartement vide,  ce fut horrible.  Pendant des heures je restais dans la chambre de mes enfants avec ma déprime.  Résultat:  je me suis laisser aller, pendant des semaines, je ne faisais plus rien.  Plus d'argent,  plus de loyer,  et un jour,  c'est la rue.

After being fired from my job as a chauffeur, I started an ironing business in Paris. I put all my savings and all my energy into it. At the point where things started to go wrong, something happened which turned my life upside down. My wife (I was married for seven years with two children) decided to divorce because she wanted a stable situation. After having spoken with her about it for several days and trying to convince her to support me, she decided to leave. One afternoon, I came home and there was no-one there — no clothes, just a note to explain to me that she had left. I found myself alone in this empty flat, it was horrible. I stayed in my children's bedroom for hours with my depression. The result was that I let myself go. For weeks I did nothing at all. No money, no rent and one day, it was the streets for me.

‘People think that we don't care’

In 2012, Francis was 60 years old and at that point had been homeless for 15 years. He hoped to be able to take retirement soon to be able to change his life.

On his blog, hosted on news site Rue89, Francis tried to set straight a few preconceptions about the lives of the homeless, one being that the homeless are not interested in the evolution of current society. Francis explained that the homeless discuss politics as much as anyone else:

Les gens pensent qu’on s’en fout mais dans la queue des soupes populaires, dans la rue, on parle partout des élections  ! En 1998, une loi relative à la lutte contre les exclusions ouvre l’inscription sur les listes électorales aux sans-abri. Le vote est réservé aux personnes de nationalité française, jouissant de leurs droits civiques et capables de fournir une attestation de domicile. Pour la plupart des SDF, il s’agit de se domicilier dans un centre agréé par les préfectures – Emmaüs, par exemple, gère 400 domiciliations. Mais la complexité des situations administratives et les conditions de vie extrêmes font que la rue vote peu.

People think that we don't care, but in the queue at the soup kitchen or on the streets, everywhere we're talking about the elections! In 1998, a law to combat social exclusion opened registration to the electoral register to include the homeless. The vote is reserved for people of French nationality, exercising their civic rights and able to prove their address. Most homeless people are homed in a centre established by the authorities – the Emmaüs charity, for example, manages the residence of some 400 homeless people. However, the complexity of the administrative situations and the extreme conditions of life mean that the homeless rarely vote.

He added his thoughts about presidential elections in 2002 and 2007:

En 2002, j’avais voté Jospin au premier tour. Chirac au second. Pas de gaité de cœur, mais Le Pen, je peux pas. J'aurais peut-être voté Sarkozy en 2007. Aujourd’hui, plus question: on sait maintenant que ça n’est pas lui qui aidera les pauvres. Il ne réduira pas les inégalités sociales. Comme Hollande d’ailleurs. Sur le social, il fera à peu près la même politique  : il privilégiera l’hébergement d’urgence en hiver et c’est tout. C’est pas assez pour la rue.

In 2002, I voted for Jospin in the first round and for Chirac in the second. Chirac was definitely not my first choice, but I couldn't possibly vote for Le Pen. I might have voted for Sarkozy in 2007 but today I wouldn't even think about it: we know now that it's not him that will help the poor. He won't reduce social inequality. Like [current French president François] Hollande, by the way. His policy will be much the same on social issues: he prioritises emergency shelter in the winter but nothing more. That's not enough for those on the streets.

In France, 3.6 million people are either homeless (895,000 people), living in very difficult — overcrowded or below the comfort threshold — circumstances (2,880,000 people), or in a precarious situation, such as living in a hotel, caravan, or other temporary accommodation. This data is according to the Fondation Abbé-Pierre. Three homeless people in 10 have a job, generally an insecure position, whether a fixed-term contract or temporary work. It is the cost of housing and the lack of adequate social housing provision that keeps them on the streets.

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