Friday, June 29, 2012

Homeless in Paris: a survival guide

It is estimated that about 80 homeless people live in my immediate neighborhood.

There are two kinds of homeless people in Paris. There are some men in their fifties surrounded by bags of stuff, and who look like out of control alcoholics. They have been around for as far as I remember. There are also some people who don't speak much French, who don't have stuff but often are accompanied by something to inspire compassion: women with young children, men with dog and puppies, person kneeling in an attitude of prayerful meditation. I am told that they are "roms" (some kind of gypsies?) and that they form a network similar to Fagin's beggar group.

Yesterday I saw someone different, an older woman with bags of stuff, who was begging without much energy. It was around midnight, on a pedestrian street, and I wondered where she was going to spend the night. I asked if she was going to sleep there. She said, no, of course not, because for a woman there was too much of a risk of being getting into trouble. Instead, she goes to a safe spot, a place right next to the police station. She gets together with two or three other women, and they all sleep near one another, so that they can help if one of them is attacked. Before going to sleep, she also waits until the men have gone to bed, so that they don't notice that there is a woman nearby. Finally, she takes care to wear gender-neutral clothes: a black wool hat and some baggy pants, so that, seen from the back, in the dark one might think that she is a man. Finally, she added that the place near the police station was protected from the rain, and gave me the address. I wished her good night and left.

The thought crossed my mind to offer her a bed for the night in my guest room, but it did not linger. The weather was nice, and sleeping outside did not seem like the worst thing in the world that evening.

Now I wonder if she thought I might be looking for a place where to crash. I was wearing old jeans and a slightly frayed T-shirt, and carrying a backpack. Perhaps she thought I had nowhere to go to, and was giving me advice? How considerate of her!

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