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Down and out in Paris

Down and out in Paris and London is a novel written by George Orwell, published in 1933. Orwell recounts his experiences as a clochard or vagrant, in both cities. The current "correct" terms in France for clochard are :

Sans Abri
Literally without shelter, a homeless person
Sans Domicile Fixe, no fixed abode

There are estimated to be 100,000 SDF in France, 8000 in Paris. and you cannot be in Paris on the streets or Métro without encountering them. Between 100 and 150 SDF die in France during winter, from the cold, sickness and violence.

In the winter of 2006, bright red tents distributed to the SDF by the volunteer charities Médecins du monde (Doctors of the World) and Enfants de Don Quichotte (Children of Don Quixote] appeared along the Seine and Canal St Martin, drawing public attention to the problem: One expat blogger, who has an apartment in Paris, house in Provence with swimming pool, and who travels overseas a few times each year, tells how unsightly these tents are, spoiling the lovely views of the Seine and canal. The blogger wonders why they "can't do their protest somewhere else".

The Paris police, or whoever gives them their orders, seem to have the same opinion. They will clear out any new line of tents that appears, unless there are too many of them, or the supporters outnumber the police, which often happens, one of the reasons I admire the Parisians.

After 30 charitable associations organized a demonstration of support for the SDF, during which hundreds of people slept in the Place de la République for a night in December 2006, the Government promised to increase its efforts to provide more and better accommodation.

The Métro stations are left open in winter, after the trains have finished for the night, so that the SDF left on the streets can get out of the cold. There are dormitories run by the Mairies and charities, which feed and house homeless people for the night, but the dormitories are often hell-holes where they cannot sleep for the noise, and the necessity to protect themselves from attack and their few possessions from theft by the others. Many SDF are on the streets because they prefer it to the dormitories.

When I see an SDF in the street, which is to say every day in Paris, I always remember how few steps removed from them I am. The company I worked in for the last six years filed for bankrupcy protection last week, I have enough savings for three months rent and food, and I am already past the average retirement age in France. As one commentator said, the homeless in the streets are the mirror of our fears and our sympathies.

Charity organisations sometimes encourage us to see the SDF as the victims of Society's faults. Story writers like the image of the carefree vagabond. Both exist, but they are the extremes of the range. For every poor victim, there are several vicious alcoholics, too ignorant or unskilled to be successful predators. For every vagabond happily singing under a bridge, there are single parents with children, cheated out of a home with no friends or family who can help. The extremes are are here to see every day, in Paris: the beggar in the Métro who had to interrupt his pleading when he got a call on his mobile phone, and the young man, unnoticed or ignored by commuters on the platform, who threw himself in front of a train in peak hour out of despair. As an ordinary Paris dweller, I have seen all this in the last eight years.

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