A couple of months ago I went to visit Paris, one of the most fashionable cities in the world. As many other millions of visitors every year, I too found it to be a fabulous place and I could have stayed much longer than what my ticket allowed me. So much to see, so much to do! And the chicness I encountered there honestly made me want to go home and replace my entire wardrobe. But obviously I didn’t, and this post will not be about the latest trends, nor a list of the Top 10 Boutiques to go shopping in. This will be a small story about a rougher side to the beautiful city.
Just around the time I visited a really interesting poster campaign was launched by the Aurore Association; a French social welfare organisation, mainly supported by government funds. The posters were made to create awareness amongst the public on the harsh conditions homeless people experience in the fashion capital. It used world known designer brands, that everyone recognises, to catch people’s attention. The slogan “Let’s try to have the elegance to help those who have nothing”.
The last names of Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, and Jean-Paul Gaultier were replaced with French words with almost the same sound, but the meanings are closely associated to life of the homeless men on the pictures. “Yves Sans Logement” means “Yves Without Housing”. “Christian Dehors” means “Christian Outside” and Jean-Paul Galere” means “Jean-Paul in trouble or difficult situation”. A brilliant approach to get people’s attention.
Unfortunately I didn’t see the posters myself. I only learned about them after returning home and starting to do a bit of research on the issue, as I had noticed a quite big presence of homelessness on my trip. So much that I took pictures and had already decided I wanted to learn more about the statistics. Now, I have travelled enough to know that all large cities in the world have homeless people. Unfortunately that is something that we will probably never see the end of. Even in a welfare state like Denmark, where I am from, we have some homeless people. I should know as I used to work as a volunteer in an emergency shelter in Copenhagen, and got to know some of the stories behind the people you will see begging the streets there. And in London, where we live, you will see homeless people every day.
What made Paris different was the small creatively made shelters that were dotted around town. These were found on back streets, in alley ways, and most places that was a bit withdrawn from the hustle and bustle of the bigger roads. Small places to hold the few possessions the homeless own, a place to retire to, and somewhere to keep them dry in the rainy nights.
Europe is now the home to the most billionaires in the world and Paris holds a large concentration of this wealth. Normally inequality tends to show pictures of poverty-stricken countries and it was just really sad to see that some people actually live like this in Western Europe. One of the richest places on our planet. But as you’ll see my pictures show a big contrast to the fashionable shops of Champs Elysee and the intellectual’s cafes and art galleries in St Germain.
At the same time it was quite touching to see how people, despite their destitute situation, had still made an effort in making it just a tiny bit homey with a bit of decoration. Some had chairs set up and washing lines with clothes hanging to dry. Outside one of the tents I saw a man sitting in his pyjamas, shaving and getting ready for the day. And seeing their lives and ‘homes’ exposed like this, made it all the more real that this is reality for some people. This is how they live.
Normally you see a homeless person begging on the street, sitting with their back against a building and a sign in front of them, asking for help. A bit of cash. Some food. A job. You rarely see where they go to after you’ve handed them a fiver. And that really made an impression on me.
In front of the St. Sulpice Church some people had set up little donation boxes, right next to their sleeping bags and suitcases. I assume they hoped that leaving it like this, in front of a church, meant that people would a) feel it was ‘holy ground’ and not run off with their belongings and b) maybe even feel charitable and leave behind some coins.
Apparently homelessness is a growing problem in France. The housing charity Fondation Abbé Pierre, released their 20th annual report in February this year. The numbers are choking. It is estimated that almost 10 million people in France live in a fragile situation in terms of housing. Including around 3.5 million people who are currently living in sub-standard accommodation for example without a home address; living in hotel rooms, camping sites, or squatting etc. Twenty eight thousand are sleeping rough and around 5.000 of these are on the streets of Paris.
I hope that when you go to visit Paris (and oh you should definitely go if you’re one of the privileged who has the means to travel), you will be kind to the people of the streets. In between your visits to cafe’s, museums, sights, and the inevitable shopping remember the slogan “Let’s try to have the elegance to help those who have nothing”. Acknowledge they’re there. Don’t avoid eye contact. Give them a smile to make their day a bit more bearable. Maybe a cup of coffee and a contribution to the next meal.
Visited May 2015