On an ordinary day, some 3,500 people live outside on the streets of Paris, their tents and makeshift beds largely ignored by throngs of passers-by in the City of Light. To get by, they rely on a patchwork of services from charities and government, as well as begging for spare change or food.
But these are not ordinary days. With France in its fourth week of coronavirus shutdown, the plight of homeless people in Paris has become acute with access to soup kitchens, public toilets and showers, and daytime shelters severely curtailed.
With streets quiet, there are fewer opportunities to ask for help or money, and shelters that could provide refuge bring with them the risk of infection. Police have ticketed or hassled street people who are breaking quarantine rules, despite them obviously having no place to go. “It’s more difficult for me now . . . everyone is afraid to give,” said Rahim, a 49 year-old who came to France from Morocco nine years ago and who begs for money in the north of the city. “I don’t have anywhere to sleep tonight.”
In a city that has long had a more permissive attitude to its homeless population than other world capitals, the coronavirus is stressing the informal system of charities and resources that people rely on to survive. Some warn of an impending disaster despite the government announcing measures to help, including €65m for emergency housing of 10,000 beds, suspending evictions until May, and opening 73 new shelters for the sick.
As of April 4, the government says it has lodged 172,000 homeless people and secured 7,800 hotel rooms that could be made available to those in need.
“We have to do more in the coming days to avoid a human catastrophe . . . people will die,” said Christophe Robert, the head of the Abbé Pierre foundation, a homeless charity.
In the north of Paris last month, Ma Sarr handed out plastic-wrapped sandwiches, tea and coffee to the scores of homeless people queueing up between metal crowd-control barriers set up by her organisation Solidarité et Partage Jouy Le Moutier.
Speaking through a protective mask, the longtime volunteer said she knows many of the homeless on the route she drives twice weekly in her van packed with supplies. She was determined to show up for them now: “They are really afraid but . . . they are used to us being here, they wait for us.”
President Emmanuel Macron last month visited a former hotel in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, which the government has requisitioned to house roughly 450 homeless people. However, progress on new beds has been slow, according to charities, with only 2,000 opened so far and only six centres for sick people have opened.
Other measures include extending for two months the so-called “winter truce”, which usually bars evictions in France from November to the end of March.
“We salute what the government has done to date, but more is needed given the great need and risk of humanitarian crisis,” said Sami Chataya, a Red Cross official.
Charities also struggle with tougher working conditions. Their staff and volunteers, many of whom are older retirees, are staying at home in increasing numbers due to childcare issues or fear of infection.
Homeless charity Emmaüs says 35 per cent of its permanent staff are no longer able to come to work, while the Red Cross has cut back its daily visits to homeless people by about 10 per cent.
Meanwhile, some facilities in Paris where homeless people can go to rest or shower during the day have had to curtail services because of social distancing. One such centre in the 1st arrondissement of Paris can only take in 50 people a day, compared with 200 before the crisis.
Many of the charities struggle to get protective gear for their volunteers. The Red Cross managed to secure 25,000 masks recently, but that only represents about three days’ worth for its roughly 1,500 staff members and 9,700 volunteers. “If we had more masks we would be able to better serve people,” Mr Chataya said.
Teams that usually roam the city to check on the homeless report having run-ins with police and even being yelled at by local residents for being outside. “They are stopped by police four to six times a day and criticised for being irresponsible in maintaining service that is supposedly non-essential,” wrote Samira El Alaoui of the charity, Les Enfants du Canal, in an email to government officials.
Ms Sarr said the police had been around earlier to force people to go to shelters, which often ended up turning them away for lack of space. “You wouldn’t believe the condition of some of these shelters,” she said. The risk of infection means “many people want to be outside rather than in a room with four or five other people”.
Despite the risks of police checks and infection, Ms Sarr has brought her two daughters and her mother to help out and is still smiling as they all pack up to drive to their last stop of the night.
“I don’t know how late we will finish, last Monday it was 1.30 in the morning. But it’s OK, I have my family with me.”