If you have ever visited or lived in Paris, then you probably noticed people begging all over the city. There are people in need asking for small change or a “ticket de resto” (a meal ticket) at every busy intersection, in front of your favorite bakery, and on the metro (the subway) as you travel around the city. It can feel overwhelming and disheartening because of the sheer scale of how many people seem to be on the streets and in need.
City-wide homeless census
Recently, Paris carried out a census in which over 1,700 parisiens volunteered their time to walk the streets of Paris between 10pm-2am to count people sleeping rough on the streets. They counted almost 3,000 individuals but acknowledged it is probably an underestimate because there were some areas they didn’t get to, and whenever they saw a tent, they counted that as 1 (not wanting to disturb the potential whole families sleeping inside). And what makes the situation more challenging is that the problem (according to local charities and the government) is getting worse. There are more and more people and whole families being forced into poverty and homelessness either through difficult economic realities or due to mass population migrations. Paris also receives an average of 40 new people every single day and unfortunately not all of them will find employment and housing.
Sorry, this sounds very bleak doesn’t it. That wasn’t exactly my intention, but it is the reality of the current situation. I hope to talk more about this issue in the future, but my hope for today’s post is just to share a bit about what its’ like, about the recent census, and also to share a bit of my heart change towards people on the street.
Small gestures really do make a difference
For the first couple years here, I never gave homeless people anything (I made occasional exceptions for the musicians on the metro, if they were good). But I was afraid that if I started to give, either I would be enabling someone to make poor choices or what’s worse, enabling a mafia type situation that exploits and enslaves people (which is a real concern). Truthfully, I was also afraid to become soft, that if I gave, I would somehow become out of control and lose all common sense (I thought the only way to survive city living was to become a bit hardened otherwise I’d be taken advantage of). I was so afraid of these things, I did nothing.
But doing nothing really didn’t sit well with me. I desperately wanted to do something to help, but didn’t know how or what. So I found an association in Paris (Agape Street) that I volunteered with for a year. Every week, we gathered to assemble the food and hygiene supplies, then in small teams we went out and spent time with our neighbors who sleep on the street. We tried to go to the same places so we could develop relationships with people. I enjoyed it so much that this year, I started doing the same thing in our neighborhood. The biggest encouragement has been the realization that even though I probably can’t solve the bigger problem of getting 3,000 people off the street, I can do a little good right in my community. Within a 10-minute walk from my apartment, there are between 8-14 people usually and we actually can provide them with a humble dinner, a coffee, and a conversation. It’s not everything, and I still have A LOT to learn about how else we can help, but it feels good to do something.