The Homeless in Lille, France: Talk to a Homeless Person Day?

Beggars Banquet

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who was homeless? If you're from Australia, then chances are you haven't. They usually sit there, quietly asking, waiting, pleading with their eyes…. But in France on the other hand, they tend to be a little more in your face. (Edit: Having said that, every person is different. Some people who are homeless in France are shy; others are extrovert. Some are have a smile, others are clearly worried and sad. Some wear kinda nice clothes, but have nothing to eat. Some sleep on cardboard in a quiet spot outside, while others sleep in metro stations where it's a bit safer and warmer. Others are squatters, such as the Roma in Lille. I've only had a handful of conversations with  people who are homeless in Lille so necessarily I can't speak for them all. Anyway, that would be like trying to speak for all the people with houses! )

Neal being approached by a beggar
Candy like a bar

Homeless, more commonly known as SDF (sans domicile fixe), are everywhere. As mentioned in my previous blog post, Paris is full of SDF, partly due to the high cost of living and unemployment. In Lille, where most of my experiences have been, SDF often come up to you and plead for a few euros to help buy some food. In Lille, there are also the Romas or Romanian gypsies who mutter unintelligibly in their own tongue oftentimes, begging desperately for monie or juste des petits éspeces, 'sss'iil vooous plaaaît'. It's distressing, but at the same time it can be misleading. I've been told by French friends that the Roma have a strong community identity and often pull in a lot of funds to redistribute among themselves. However, like I emphasized earlier, every sub-culture, ever person is different. I'd imagine there would be in-fighting, exclusion, injustice and cruelty within their own communities, just like with people that do have homes!

But as for other nationalities on the street, it's hard to say if there are trends in how they form friendships or alliances. This is just an impression, but I take it that during sleeping times, some homeless group together for security while perhaps taking shifts throughout the night to guard their property. If Lille is anything like what I saw in Sydney, it seems as if the SDF have a fair sense of personal space and territory. That is, when asking for money, they space themselves out across the city.

Romanian Gypsy Beggar
It seems to me that the French government has been very generous to the Roma people, often giving $300 euros to each family each month to help pay for necessities. What complicates the situation is the seeming lack of effort by Romas to develop employable labour skills as well as adequate French conversational skills. I imagine it's hard to break years-old habits of begging without work, and finding a job is just too hard and complicated. Granted, there's a lot of paperwork involved in France. Nevertheless, there are associations and systems in place to help immigrants interate into general society, however I feel the problem is complex, and stems to their very way of thinking. A partial solution is to wait for the next generation who are getting educated in the French system, who will then find jobs and lift their families from poverty.

Braderie de Lille
Braderie de Lille by gamy

It would appear that the French homeless in Lille are not too different from the Roma, in terms of government support. I don't know to what extent this would be true though.There seems to be a few sub-cultures of homeless here who have made an art of staying on the street. One conspicuous sub-culture often dresses in a certain way: dreadlocked hair, enormous dogs held tightly on a leash,with gaunt, alert looks on their faces. For some, it's been a way of escape from their home. I spoke to one girl who begs, yet in fact she studies at my uni, Lille 3! Oh yes, there are beggars in French universities. So I was talking to her, for the second time, and she recognised me. I remembered that she had told me her dad was violent at home and she wanted out, so she took to the streets. I think I remember that she only stays at her home occasionally for sleep. These a but a few of the many different backgrounds that people living on the street come from. It would be unfair to label them simplistically and impersonally as 'the SDF'. I've tried to avoid this in the blog--feel free to give suggestions if you think I haven't achieved this. What I do want to emphasize is that it's easy for us, as people with homes, to be critical of the problem, but not actually relate to the people who are experiencing it, usually because of 'busyness'. What is that, really?

Perhaps from this post, you've started to consider having conversation with a homeless person near you. Please do--they are often open to conversation. You may discover they know lots, are quite different to what you expected, but have had a pretty rough patch...

Another question that's worth reflecting on: do we have a tendency to merely expect the government to support the SDF, or do we also take personal responsibility to look after our vulnerable street people?

Read on...


Anonymous said...

Oh Mark, I liked that you wrote about this topic but I think you have a very naive way of seeing the problem (or issue). I really don't think it is fair to talk about it so broadly... yet you tried and I congratulate you for it. Tristan, ton ancien prof @ UWA.

Mrbonchapeau said...

Thanks for the comment, Tristan. I meant to mainly forcus on my experiences in Lille--maybe you didn't get that impression with the title.

"In Lille, where most of my experiences have been, SDF come up to you..."

I also tried to use qualifiers such as 'seems', 'partly due to', 'partial solution', 'perhaps', 'they tend to be a little more...'.

I actually didn't intend this blog to be comprehensive, but rather to give a snapshot of the homeless in France. I'm sure there are many other factors which I didn't touch you know of some that I didn't mention?

Thx & keep up the comments!

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark interesting comments, has made me think again. I could spot the Roma's a mile off and politely told them "no" but I could not quite work out the french faces I saw especially one young girl who I wavered about going to go and speak to. My wife and I were not that troubled by them coming up to us except one guy who was giving me the full verbal treatment he was the closest I came to turning around and taking him on but the wife didn't fancy going home to England on her own whilst I rested in a Police Cell!

I know they get money from somewhere and I could tell by their clothes they were not completely destitute the problem is you could spend all day walking round with a bag of money giving out Euros and all that does is encourage them to keep on doing it! Next time we are back and we will be back because we love Lille I shall be a bit more circumspect and selective this time. I don't agree with giving Roma's money when I know they could find a job or do something more for themselves but the French youngsters are a worry and I don't like seeing them begging in what is essentially such a rich town. I probably wont give them money in case they have a drug of alcohol or cigarette habit but I will buy them some food!

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