Tolerated invisibility

November 16, 2012 | Government, Homelessness, Housing, Innovations, Local issues, Paris, Regulation, Rooming Houses, Supportive housing

By:David A. Smith


Homelessness is a failure; on that everyone can agree.  But whose is the failure, and whose the responsibility to address it?  The question lies, unasked, underneath a surprisingly snippy Economist article:


Jean, a 31-year-old homeless man at Canal Saint-Martin, Paris


Down and out in Paris


The inventor of experiential journalism


Homelessness in France – Tolerance has its limits


Paris is no stranger to [economic] contrasts. Luxury and penury have always coexisted there in uneasy tension. But now a growing number of homeless are stretching the limits of the city’s generosity.


Until perhaps 150 years ago, societies answered, No one is responsible.  Orphan children who slept in stairwells and ran in packs were called ‘urchins’ or ‘street Arabs’ (indicating nomadic) and seen just as part of the city’s color.  Condescendingly visited in Lily Lantry’s slum tours, they were romanticized as Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars and presented as symbolizing pluck and enterprise.


The reality from which the Baker Street Irregulars were idealized


In the ensuing century and a half, our conception of the urban homeless changed, first with the Depression, then with the Needle Park drug addicts.


A Hooverville, circa 1930


Needle Park, 1971


With the slow extinction of rooming houses came the era of empathic aid (“It’s a fair cop, but society is to blame”; “Agreed, we’ll be charging them too”) of helping my sympathizing, and that has been barely more successful despite progressively increasing real expenditures, even as the homeless population changes:


Sunday nights in Paris are busy on the northern tip of the Canal Saint-Martin. On either side of the water, two groups form long ordered queues, albeit for different reasons. One queue is for those hoping to buy something to eat from a new gourmet hamburger truck (hour-long waits are normal). The other queue, almost all young North African men, is for those hoping to find a seat on a bus to a homeless shelter on the outskirts of the city.


Homeless men socializing, Canal Saint-Martin


When it comes to the urban homeless, three philosophical positions are plausibly logical:


1.     Help them all.  They are human beings, and we must relieve their suffering and help them toward self-sufficiency.

2.     Help only the ‘deserving’, whose condition is not their fault or who have a claim on our entitlements (say, because they are our citizens, or our veterans, or fleeing domestic violence).

3.     Help no one at all. Urban homelessness is their own fault and if we coddle them, we’ll be rewarding behaviors we want to discourage.


Each position is defensible in the abstract, but each can easily be confounded by an individual circumstance: the unwed mother beaten, the serial addict and petty thief who finds his way to Paris because that’s where his presence is tolerated.


The eyes of a survivor: Jean Valjean


“It is easier to be homeless in Paris than any other city in the European Union,” says Julien Damon, a sociologist at Sciences Po, a university.


You know he’s French because he wears such a scarf onstage


Markets operate with economic rationality, no matter how low the economics nor how imperfect the market.  Though the symptom homelessness breaks out locally, each individual homeless person is the output of an un-value chain that stretches across urban and even national borders.  Within the EU people can migrate, even the less-mobile homeless, and they find their way to the place of least resistance, and just as Venice, California is the least-hostile Western US environment, Paris, whether it wished to or no, has made itself more attractive than other European capital (such as Budapest) in attracting the homeless:


EMTs and the people of Canal Saint-Martin


Paris is a magnet for the transient.


The city’s homelessness appeal arises from a combination of factors.


In European surveys, French respondents are the most likely to see homelessness as a product of unemployment and the least likely to see it as the result of drug or alcohol addiction.


Homeless at Canal Saint-Martin: who knows their back story?


Choosing to help all has the administrative virtue of simplicity – as does choosing to help none.  Both of them also


Parisian police are more tolerant of the homeless than those in other European cities and rarely trouble rough sleepers—an approach that has deep cultural roots. 


Whole a forgiving tolerance may seem more humane than the opposite posture, as far as I can tell both these unilateralist approaches have done equally poorly in actually remediating homelessness – tolerance has just led to greater visible homelessness, and quite possibly to Paris importing the homeless than Budapest is content to export. 


In any case, since the two approaches are diametrically opposite, if they are both failing that proves that the problem is inherently complex and that curing homelessness will require addressing the inherent complications of individual people with problems. 


Housing is often ‘blamed’ for homelessness – after all, if people have no home, the problem must be a shortage of housing, and the solution must be to give them housing.  Surprisingly – I thought their editors smarter than this – the Economist falls into that facile trap:


However welcoming the streets of Paris, the homeless would do better with a roof over their heads.


Tents tolerated waterside and under the bridge at Canal Saint-Martin


The magazine then compounds its error by accusing undefined Parisian authorities of perpetuating a mis-designed policy:


The problem is not just that there are not enough houses, but also that the wrong people tend to get them.  The most useful fix would be for rough sleepers to go closer to the top of the queue for permanent public housing, as happens in London.


Perhaps, but when it comes to homelessness, lack of accommodation is merely the visible symptom; the disease is poverty or self-destructive behavior or personal tragedy, and housing is merely a palliative. 


Despite a big expansion in shelter capacity since 2004, demand still outstrips supply. Calls to an emergency number run by Samusocial de Paris, a government-funded charity that allocates beds in emergency shelters, doubled between 2009 and 2010.


Housing no more cures homelessness than a hospital bed cures disease; both create the venue where something else transformative can occur.


Homeless man Zoltan Szarka in a Budapest shelter


Transformation, however, is hard – each intervention is complicated, expensive, and lengthy, and the rates of both, both initially and through falling back into homelessness, are high.  It requires taking big risks, and that requires caring:


Nobody knows how many homeless there are in Paris. Data collection is meagre and infrequent.


Far simpler, then, to adopt a tolerance that renders the homeless invisible – unbothered but unhelped.


The last meaningful estimate by INSEE, France’s national statistics office, dates from the mid 2000s and pegged the number, including those sleeping rough or in emergency shelters on any given night at around 12,000. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number is considerably higher today.


They are being drawn from across Europe.


Joint patrols of French and Romanian police, each officer wearing his own national uniform, help deal with an influx of Roma from eastern Europe.


Roma men packing before being deported, Dompierre-sur-Mer, France


Under Sarkozy, France deported Roma.  I don’t know whether President Hollande’s government has changed the policy.


The faces of the homeless are changing too. Twenty years ago, the typical homeless person in Paris was likely to be a single, middle-aged French man. Now the homeless are more likely to be younger, with a family and foreign-born.


Interpreters have become indispensable figures at most Paris soup kitchens.


To judge from the Economist’s limited description, Paris at the moment has adopted a strategy of disorganized palliation, propping up one or another part of a homeless person’s life and not curing what ails him.


At least 12 different government bodies are charged with caring for the homeless in Paris.


Overlapping responsibility means duplication. Paris has three separate publicly funded groups that transport homeless people to shelters.


“Our problem is too much bureaucracy and centralisation,” explains Mr Damon.


Is that the problem?  Or is the problem that there is in fact no strategy whatsoever, merely a cluster of programs, each adopted and funded to address a particular symptom, unlinked into a value-chain to improve damaged  people?


The caption, in Dutch, reads, “… with a sleeping bag.  And I have nothing else.”


Dealing with homelessness, he argues, should be the exclusive responsibility of the Paris city council.


Or is the problem that many homeless don’t want to be ‘cured,’ and hence reject value-chain links that disrupt their lives?


Some complain about being woken up over the course of an evening by different homeless services. Philippe Redom, a 56-year-old rough sleeper and former chef, prefers to remain in his alcove outside an office block. The shelters are “too big and there is no privacy.”


The privacy of passers-by averting their eyes: Paris


So Mr. Redom (who doesn’t match the Economist’s claimed ‘new homeless’ but instead fits the classical homeless profile, a late-middle-aged man) values the ‘privacy’ of sleeping in the open, where anyone may pass by, to that of a shelter.

As spaces in shelters are in short supply, Paris rents hotel rooms. A report in 2011 by the Cour des Comptes, France’s national auditor, warily noted that more than 90% of the Samusocial’s annual budget of €116m ($150m) went to hotels.


More than likely, that is because, back in a time of esprit and hope, Paris enacted a law or received  a judicial decision guaranteeing the homeless a right to overnight accommodations (to make the homeless invisibly tolerated) and now finds the existence of that right drawing people from across Europe, a cycle of attraction that has no end:


In September the French government announced €50m in emergency spending on housing the homeless in Paris.


The sign reads, No stranger to misery here