The Surprisingly Similar COVID-19 Challenges of French Homeless and Students

This article was written by Victoria Deniel and Júlia Tar

Homeless at Porte de la Chapelle in Paris, France. Photo by Selina Martinez

To stay at home, you need a home. But not everyone has one. People have been living on the streets of France as they do in other countries, but they are facing difficulties when it comes to accommodation, food, and even water like never before – and they are not the only ones.

Lockdown has forced us to notice those who are outside, – homeless, slum dwellers – who have come forward out of fear of COVID-19, to seek help when their usual survival practices were no longer possible, or are simply driven by hunger.

An apocalypse for the homeless

Camille Bigna, a volunteer from the association Secours Populaire in Paris – that provides food aid, clothing, access to and maintenance in housing, etc. – says that from the very first weeks of the health crisis, needs that had not been covered until then became more visible. According to her, some people had to wait two or three days before being able to eat. “People told us they had no information. During the lockdown, people were telling us ‘I’m hungry, I don’t know where to eat’, which is very rare in France.”

Bigna continued to help the homeless during the pandemic but she was a rare exception. “For a couple of weeks, there was nothing. The associations were scared, too. So, on the streets, people found themselves all alone. It was just them and me, no one else. I had the impression that it was the apocalypse.”

She also explains that people living in shantytowns suffered from a lack of water points in most areas. Many municipalities, prompted to act by government services and associations, have installed water points, but they have often proved insufficient (one tap per living space, for example), and have sometimes been removed after the restrictions and some sites have remained without a solution. Public fountains, showers, and toilets also closed due to the lack of staff to maintain them and to the decontamination requirements of these places.

“How can we wash our hands when we don’t have access to water?”

“We were told to wash our hands, but at least leave the fountains open, otherwise how can we wash our hands when we don’t have access to water?” says a person who the Abbé Pierre Foundation, a foundation for the housing of the underprivileged, helped. “All the parks were closed, all the showers were closed, I couldn’t use the toilets. Those who did not have access to hygiene, like me, felt in danger.”

Shelters, help, and unresolved problems

Once the initial shock had passed, some solutions were proposed in certain towns: the opening of showers and toilets in secondary schools, stadiums, or swimming pools. Food distribution also gradually resumed, Jonathan Mougeot, another volunteer at the Abbé Pierre Foundation says. “The Vallier Stadium in Marseille offered showers for the homeless. But that was after 2-3 weeks. In the beginning, there wasn’t anyone providing food, hygiene, nothing.”

Mougeot says that at the beginning of June, 16 associations filed an emergency lawsuit. The administrative court ordered the communes of Aubervilliers and Saint-Denis, in conjunction with the EPT Plaine Commune (a territorial public establishment that brings together 9 towns in the north of Paris), to install water points, shower cubicles, toilets. They also ordered them to reinforce the refuse collection system. It also asked the Paris Police Prefect and the Seine-Saint-Denis Prefect to distribute masks and hydro-alcoholic gel in sufficient quantities.

“Can you let me in, please? I’m not feeling well. I see things.”

Alan Duclos, a volunteer from Nantes at L’Autre Cantine, which serves meals every day, distributes clothes and hygiene products, explains that during the first lockdown last spring, there was a plan to shelter everyone from the streets. There was even an emergency shelter number, 115. As many hotel rooms as possible were made available to accommodate people who requested them. In Nantes, 300 places were reserved for the homeless. But there were still people on the street. This plan did not stop immediately after the lockdown, some arrangements were maintained, and others were not.

Duclos says that even though emergency places were created, the problem of building more social housing is a structural problem that remains difficult to solve. “The state doesn’t do much to prevent eviction.”

He also agrees that the beginning of the first lockdown was very difficult. “When a lonely man whose only reference point was the daytime reception at our canteen where people can come and charge their phones, have a hot drink… The fact that there was no longer this reception… One day, he came to the door and said ‘Alan can you let me in, please? I’m not feeling well. I see things.’ He seemed lost, he was psychologically decompensating.”

Lack of information and isolation

The isolation that homeless people usually experience is even stronger as the social links they had developed, with residents, shopkeepers, volunteers, etc., have been suddenly gone. Fred, a homeless man in Paris, says this is the hardest part for him. “People are walking their dogs, running around a little bit, but apart from saying hi, that’s all. Because of the lockdown, even if you are a metre away, people are suspicious of you. And when you live in a camping car, people are suspicious of you anyway. Now it is even worse.”

“I thought France was on strike, I didn’t know there was this thing.”

Some didn’t even have any information about the pandemic. “I thought France was on strike, I didn’t know there was this thing,” says Patrick, another homeless man in Paris.

Camille Bigna says that many people “didn’t stay in the city centre, they dispersed. So there is a part of the homeless that we don’t know anything about. This is a further complication. We don’t know whether or not things are going well, in terms of food consumption or harm reduction.”

The association Secours Populaire doing charity work in Paris, France. Photo by Victoria Deniel

Food, housing, and unemployment – not only a problem of the homeless anymore                                                                                                                         

Non-profit association Secours Populaire reported in September 2020 that nearly 600,000 people, previously unknown to the association, had requested food aid during the first lockdown, representing nearly half (45%) of all the association’s beneficiaries during this period. The French federation of food banks, which supplies 5,400 structures, increased its distribution by 25% to cope with the influx of new requests. Even after the first lockdown, they did not decrease during the summer of 2020, to the extent that the organisation was forced to draw on its long-term stocks. Minister of Solidarity and Health Olivier Véran stated on 8 September 2020, that 8 million people needed this aid, compared to 5.5 million in 2019.

In addition to the homeless, students, people who have not found a job, whose fixed-term contract has not been renewed or others with a temporary contract that has not been extended, employees who had more stable jobs but have seen their income decrease with partial unemployment or the impossibility of receiving additional income (odd jobs, undeclared work, etc.), as well as self-employed entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, craftsmen or intermittent workers in the entertainment industry – they all have suffered because of the pandemic.

What characterises all these people is the instability of their resources; the slightest incident causes them to fall into instability, exposes them to an impossible trade-off between expenses that are all necessary (paying their rent or getting food), with the need to apply for social or food aid. But not all these people are familiar with the social welfare system, often suffer in silence and reluctantly push the doors of the distribution centres.

Possible lasting consequences

Pierre Wage, president of L’épicerie sans prix – a student organisation in Paris that redistributes unsold food from supermarkets – said that “many students rely on their student jobs, like serving food at a restaurant. When we started before the pandemic, we thought we would have a thousand students to give food to and now because of COVID, it has been multiplied by two.”

“We thought we would have a thousand students to give food to and now it has been multiplied by two.”

This also shows that young people have been affected by the virus. More often in temporary jobs, having arrived recently to the labour market, they were among the victims, without benefiting from aids since they have generally not acquired the minimum rights to access it. An analysis carried out by Prism’Emploi – an organization that brings together companies through their employment agencies – in October 2020 shows that the health crisis has led to a drop in resources for more than 4 out of 10 young people, forcing them to reduce their standard of living and to rely on the support of their family (if they can) and of the state.

This situation is even more alarming as it affects a population that is becoming poorer – 20% of 18–29-year-olds were already below the poverty line before the crisis. The health crisis will worsen their situation, at least for a while, with the risk that a failed entry into the labour market will have a scarring effect on young people for several years.

French journalist Remy Buisine’s Tweet saying “It’s happening in Paris, the growing instability of students with a longer queue every evening to benefit from food distribution”

Elise Lucé, also a volunteer at the Abbé Pierre Foundation, explains that the closure of social services or their remote operation has penalised many people causing delays in their application for help, or requesting accommodation. The risk is that a delay may result in non-recursive abandonment or loss of contact with social services. According to her, the plans to help people stay in their accommodation and prevent evictions have also been slow to operate, penalising those who needed to use them and postponing the handling of urgent situations, particularly rent arrears, which have worsened.

Wage also mentions that while they are helping students with the food bank, rent is a more significant expense that students also need help with. “The government should have reacted a little bit earlier. In December, there was a student protest, which isn’t great during COVID but the government didn’t talk to the students before that. It’s quite sad that they waited until that point, to react and help students,” he adds.

While the full effects of the health and social crisis are not yet perceptible in the statistical data, François Dutté, another volunteer of the Abbé Pierre Foundation, points out that the worsening situation of the most disadvantaged is underway, since they are the most affected by the reduction in economic activity and the deterioration of the labour market. It is not only those who are below the poverty line but also households belonging to the middle class weakened by the crisis. The Economic Analysis Council points out that between March and August 2020, the wealthiest 20% of households accounted for 70% of the growth in financial wealth, while the poorest 20% went into debt.

Lucé also says that the health crisis will leave lasting traces. She explains that companies and jobs are disappearing, skills are being lost, young people are seeing their training disrupted and remain on the doorstep of employment. It is therefore important to pay attention to the first signs of a lasting destabilisation of the most vulnerable households, who will be the first to be affected by the economic impacts of the health crisis. She adds that despite the aid measures put in place in 2020, many people’s situation remains more than uncertain. Access to rights has been reduced during the lockdown period and has led to the rise in rent arrears, which is already visible but is set to intensify. Finally, she concludes by saying that the slowdown in construction will lead to a reduction in residential mobility and contribute to a reduction in the supply of available housing.

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