Cosy or too conspicuous?Paris tent-dwellings

14th August 2006, Comments 0 comments

Clusters of tent-dwellings have popped up like mushrooms all over the French capital. As Jacqueline Pietsch reports, they were tolerated during the winter but with tourist season now in full swing, the camps are embarrassing the government and sparking debate among residents.

Camped out by the Seine (Photo copyright: Robin Marshall)

"Look, Mummy, tents," a young girl yelled to her mother, pointing from a sightseeing boat towards the banks of the river Seine as the craft cruised down Paris's central waterway.

The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre-Dame cathedral and now ... tent encampments for the homeless. Tourists to the world's most visited city have a few more sights than they bargained for this year, much to the annoyance of city authorities.

Clusters of igloo-shaped tents have popped up like mushrooms all over the French capital, under bridges, along the eastern Canal Saint Martin and in secluded nooks and crannies.

The heat is on

*sidebar1*Many tent encampments are surprisingly cosy with sofas, armchairs, tables and other sundries Parisians have ejected from their homes.

The French non-governmental organisation Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) set off what has turned into a sharp debate when they distributed 300 tents emblazoned with the MDM logo to street people in December 2005.

Private individuals joined the initiative, bringing the estimated number of domes dotting the capital to about 500.

The tents were tolerated during the long winter but when the tourist season got into full swing in July, the camps, more evocative of a disaster zone than a glittering capital, rankled government and city hall.

"I am not looking to chase away homeless people, I am looking to support them. But I must also respond to requests from residents," Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë said after a number of Parisians complained.

*quote1*As France sweltered under a heatwave last month, the government called for the tents to be removed, saying it was dangerous to live in a confined space in such hot weather.

Campaigners for the homeless say the announcement came suspiciously close to the start of Paris-Plages — an annual event that transforms 2.5 kilometres of river-side roadway into a beach for a month, drawing huge crowds.

"The heatwave was a pretext," Graciela Robert, who set up MDM's section to help the homeless back in 1993, told AFP.

"There is no more danger for them than for any other camper under a tent anywhere in France," she said, adding that MDM had increased water distribution to the tent people during the heatwave.

"It's the visibility of the tents that bothers people so much.

Distributed by Medicins du Monde (Photo copyright: Musicorso)

"The homeless, you can see that they are on the ground and that doesn't bother anyone! Where would they be if they didn't have a tent? They would be on the ground, hidden in doorways or in underground parking lots," Robert said.

On the other side of the debate, police and city authorities charge that the tents prompt the homeless to band together, making it more difficult to get them off the streets and into emergency housing.

But for Robert, this is encouraging.

"Street people are people alone, isolated. Now, a social phenomenon is happening. They're making contact ... but why do people see this as dangerous?

"Why do they scare people now that they're together? Something's just not right there," she said.

If not here, where?

For the homeless, the tents are a boon.

"The tent gives you a little bit of dignity. It really helps create stability," said Jean-Pierre, 57, who pitched his tent three weeks ago near the Seine.

*quote2*He was depressed after sleeping rough for a year and said the MDM tent kept him from committing suicide. Now Jean-Pierre is trying to help other homeless.

"You have to get that man over there a tent," he told MDM volunteers on a nightly round, pointing to a man further along the quayside.

"His arms are all bitten by rats. He really needs a tent," Jean-Pierre said.

Nobody, however, sees the tents as a long-term solution.

"Who is happy living in a tent, honestly? What idiot wants to live like this, under a tent, all his life?" asked Jean-Pierre.

In a bid to resolve the issue, the government on Wednesday pledged to spend seven million euros to create more than 1,000 extra places in 24-hour shelters by the end of next year.

As the debate plays out in the media, many homeless say the police have been pressuring them to go, something denied by police and city authorities.

"The police, they tell us 'One way or another you are going to clear out!'," said Lahouari, a soft-spoken 46-year-old man.

Lahouari has been living rough for 26 years but still has a twinkle in his eye and a quick smile.

"They see us as rubbish. Something to hide, to make disappear," he said, saying police had suggested taking the tent people to a military camp to the west of Paris.

"It's deliberate social exclusion. It's a double punishment — we are already living precariously and now we are being banished," Lahouari said.

"It's like they are saying, 'Go live out your misery elsewhere'."

August 2006

Copyright AFP

Subject: Living in France, homeless, Bertrand Delanoë, tents in Paris, heat wave in France


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