[Ed. note: December 2006’s encampment along the Canal St. Martin in Paris, described here, grew to some 400 people sans domicile fixé before being closed down by the authorities in March with promises of housing still unmet. It was revived briefly this month before police again shut it down. This encampment had the support of Paris’ mayor and, reported the UK Independent on Dec. 21, “more embarrassingly for the center-right government – the Catholic Church.” A top church charity official told the paper “that at least 6,000 places were missing in halfway houses and many more in emergency shelters. ‘If you don’t protest and just ask for things politely, no one listens,’ [he said]. ‘There is such a thing as a healthy rage.’”]
OSLO, NORWAY, Jan. 2007 —
Media rumors have it that the homeless of France have joined forces. Gathered in a large and ever-growing movement that is said to have started in Paris, they call themselves “The Children of Don Quixote.”
Several hundred homeless had organized themselves and assembled in protest, in a collection of donated red tents, beside one of the capital’s famous canals. The action had also spread to several other French towns. The stunt won media attention and garnered positive reactions from the authorities. A new law was in the making, one that would make the state responsible for homelessness, so that those without accommodation could take legal action if they weren’t found somewhere to stay. In addition, the budget for homelessness was increased tenfold as a direct result of the action. The story is almost too good to be true, like a fairy tale.
Safely checked into our Paris economy hotel room, we head out towards the site of the much talked-about tented action. A short stroll from the hotel, through vast squares and banally beautiful corner cafes, lies the famous Canal St. Martin, used in countless romantic films and a sightseeing boat-tour classic. It was built in 1825 by Napoleon to channel clean water into the city. The water glimmers, a mossy light green color; the canal is adorned with bridges at regular intervals.
At the foot of the first bridge sits a group of around 10 people. Their tents are arranged in a circle; in the middle sit a table and sofa. Cozy outdoor living. The guitar, the wine, the bread and the atmosphere are all there. A woman gets up smiling, introduces herself as Sofie, and invites us onto the sofa for a chat. Dark hair, pretty features and unashamedly well turned-out for a homeless person. Which, actually, she isn’t.
”I’m taking part in the action in solidarity with the people who don’t have a place to live,” she says. ”At night I sleep in my apartment and during the day I’m at work, but I spend my free time with this bunch here, a fantastic group of people and a real fun atmosphere. Put simply, I’m here to help out. I came when the action began; after a week I decided to stay as long as it lasts. Luckily there are a lot of people who volunteer to help, there’s a lot of solidarity. Unfortunately, they offer a lot more help than the authorities.”
”It’s become more difficult to live as a homeless person in Paris. Until 10 days ago there was free food and free medical care. The help that’s available is only day-to-day, and it doesn’t solve any of the problems. The free toilets are also closed, so that’s gotten worse too.”
Sofie believes the homeless are entirely dependent on help from the authorities to find themselves a home.
”There are so many waiting for accommodation; but they must be given help, because the rents are enormous. To solve the problem of homelessness, you have to lower the rent on housing. The alternative is to use hostels. There are around 20 in Paris, run by private organizations. Sometimes they are really neccesary, because it’s dangerous to sleep on the streets at night. So many wait until after dawn to sleep.”
”I have a job, but I’m still homeless.” Jonathan is in his mid-30s, with his long hair in a ponytail. ”I earn 1,500 euros a month ($2,200 US). But that’s no good to get an apartment. In the first place, I need at least 1,000 euros to rent even the smallest apartment. In addition, you have to have all your papers in order, and that’s not so easy when you’ve lived on the streets for a while.” A slow swig of his beer before he continues.
“This movement is great, it gives us homeless a chance to convey our message. There are now around 400 tents here. They were given to us as a gift. It’s actually a bit like being on holiday. In contrast to our normal, lonely life on the streets, it’s very sociable. And it’s also safe here. When you’re alone on the street, it’s much more difficult to sleep. It’s really a mini-revolution that’s going on.”
The action started on Dec. 16, 2006, initiated by brothers August and Jean-Baptiste Legrande. They started quietly, spending time organizing and recruiting participants. After a few days of work they had 100 red tents donated and more and more of the homeless joined up. On Christmas Day they issued a series of demands to the authorities. The key requirement was that all the homeless protesters should be given a home.
The media quickly took note and photos of the tents at the canal-side were printed all over Europe. Promises of concessions followed swiftly. The homelessness budget was increased from 11 million euros to 10 times that amount. A new law was rushed through that allows the homeless to take the state to court if they can’t find a place to live. Only Scotland has an equivalent law. The only problem with it is that it doesn’t come into force for four or five years.
”What happened on Dec. 25 was decisive, when we launched our political text with our manifesto of entirely concrete demands,” says Jilles, a student volunteer and Green Party activist. ”Negotiations are still ongoing.”
“What makes it especially difficult is the rents. They’re so high that even if a homeless person was lucky enough to find a job, he probably wouldn’t be able to afford a place to stay because of this. Rents are increasing all the time. To illustrate: as a teacher in Paris on a normal salary, you can’t afford to rent an apartment.”
What about the demand for accommodation for the protesters then, has that been allowed to drift into the shadows?
“The authorities claim that they’re now trying to find a home for everyone who lives in a tent here. Since the action began, 10 of the homeless here have found a home…. That’s just no good. The city authorities can only do so much — really, it’s the state’s responsibility.”
The promises of homes for all the homeless seem to lie far away, at the end of the canal, out of sight. The encampment continues until further notice. And these are just a few hundred of the hundreds of thousands who are without a home in France. Officially, the number of homeless is officially 89,000, but charities put the real figure at 10 times that.
You can try and imagine a tented protest in Oslo. It’s been tried before, but not on the Parisian scale. The media weren’t especially interested either. Although, with 1500 homeless, it should be entirely possible, if you found the right tent and soup sponsors. Unfortunately there aren’t any picturesque canals here. But maybe by the palace?
Reprinted from =Oslo, Oslo, Norway, Oct. 15 2007. ©Street News Service: www.street-papers.org. Translated from the Norwegian courtesy of Paul Wilson.