Homeless in Paris: From Clochard to SDF

Parisians are compassionate.

They are. I am not being facetious.

In fact, when you consider that they are the inhabitants of a large metropolis, they are downright humanitarians. The best illustration of that is their attitude towards homeless people.

Historically, homeless Parisians were known as Clochard which means tramp, hobo, bum. They had this somewhat romantic aura, stemming from Charlie Chaplin's Tramp and Jean Gabin's Archimede le Clochard. People pictured them sleeping by the Seine, drinking cheap wine and reciting poems.

Like everything else in the last four decades, the clochard lost this glossy image and became SDF or persons Sans Domicile Fixe.

They are not just by the Seine, you see them everywhere in Paris.

You will find them asleep in the doorway of a posh building in the high end 7th arrondissement. You will see them in metro stations. In parks. Next to supermarkets. Everywhere.

 Many of them are mentally ill. They are almost never violent but some are prone to bitter outbursts of long denunciations, better known as tirades, a word with etymological roots in French.
Elsewhere, especially in North America, homeless people are at best invisible beings and at worst they are so hated that they are the target of random violence. Occasionally, someone will give them some change but for most people they are drunken parasites to be avoided at all cost.

In Paris, they are human. And very much visible. People give them money, food, blankets and clothes.

Most importantly, people stop and talk to them. They treat them like ordinary human beings fallen on hard times. Which they are. I saw well dressed bourgeois women take them to a local cafe and buy them a warm meal.

I witnesses on more than one occasion people in supermarket cashier lineup pay for their food and booze. This latter act would be impossible in puritanical North America. Paying for booze and encourage drinking, oh my gosh, major pearl clutching moment.

Here, they simply don't care about lecturing these poor souls about alcoholism. They know that no one is going to stop drinking while they live and sleep on a sidewalk. Why not buy their two-euro-a-bottle-twist-top-wine for them?

Like most Parisians who tend to stay within their own arrondissement, the SDF folks tend to "belong" to a quartier. People know their names, their habits, their quirks and their corner. I have seen people trust them with their dogs and even their kids while they go and grab a baguette. Honey, stay with Monsieur, I will be right back.

That's another thing that is unthinkable in North America, as homeless people are widely seen as potential criminals.

In my little corner of Paris, there was an SDF by the name of Jean Louis who was a permanent fixture on a specific spot. Besides his daily quota of one euro that he got from me, he would hit me for five euros every three months claiming that it was his birthday.

A true Parisian, he would save enough money every year and go on vacation in Spain. Seriously. Vacations are sacred here. The man worked everyday.

But sadly, he eventually failed to come back from one such trip. That is the other thing about homeless people, they tend to have Hobbesian lives, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

He was quickly replaced by a Danish guy named Michael with two dogs. A former drug dealer with tall stories of drugs, booze and harsh penitentiary life, he became the darling of the neighborhood. As he spoke English, French, German and a assortment of Scandinavian languages, he could chat up anyone, Parisians and tourists alike. People gave him food, cigarettes, brought him coffee (he didn't drink alcohol) and sat with him to listen to his gangsta stories.

I gave him books in English and treats for his dogs. He was a voracious reader and they were voracious eaters. Everyone was happy.

He told me that, on a regular day, he made €50, and a bit more at Christmas time. Last Christmas, he made over €500 in one week. He would give me everyday's take in an envelop for safe keeping as he was worried that they would steal the money from him.

My friend's joked that I became the banker of the homeless. Grameen Bank eat your heart out.

He eventually took his money back to buy himself a car both as shelter and as a means of transportation. One day, he announced that he was getting out of that life. He realized that the "easy" money he made everyday was keeping him on the streets. He quit that evening, took his dogs and left.

I saw him a couple months later. He still had his dogs, his car, he had a small place to live and a steady job. He looked content and hopeful.

I think he got this resolve to get his life back partly thanks to my neighbors who treated him with respect and affection and without contempt.

I poke fun at Parisians occasionally but I hold them in high esteem for treating homeless people like human beings.

1 comment:

  1. That might be the first time that I'm actually proud of being french! , Like this!