Lime Legal

In from the cold

Published 10 March 2024

The death of a woman on the streets of Paris during one of the harshest winters on record led to France outlawing evictions during the winter. Kathleen Griffin reports

Last winter in Paris was harsh – almost as bad as 1954 when, during one of the worst winters on record, a woman who’d been evicted, with nowhere else to go, died of cold on the boulevard Sebastopol.

That incident, more than a decade before Shelter was founded, led a Paris priest, Abbé Pierre, to make an impassioned plea on French radio, which resulted in the setting up of a charity to help homeless people.

‘Every night, there are more than 2,000 people on the street in the cold, without a roof over their heads,’ he declared.

The charity he founded – Emmaus – set up emergency centres in the French capital. ‘Two centres have been opened and they’re already full. We need to open them across the country. Tonight in all the towns of France and in every district in Paris there must be a light in front of each centre where there will be blankets, straw and soup.’

While the winter lasts, the centres should remain open, he said, and no one else should be allowed to die.

Abbé Pierre’s broadcast was the first recognition of the terrible housing situation in France. People contributed in their thousands, the government voted special funds to help and created new housing.

Yet more than 50 years later, when Nicolas Sarkozy was campaigning in the French elections, the problem of homelesness in France seemed as bad as ever. ‘If I am elected president of the republic I want no one to be obliged to sleep on the pavement and die of cold. Because the right to housing is a human obligation.’

So why are people still dying on the streets of one of the most wealthy countries in Europe? The homelessness figures make stark reading – at least 100,000 homeless or SDF (sans domicile fixe) as homeless people are known in France. The campaigning organisation Collectif les morts dans la rue have counted 389 people who died in France last year but, as many towns do not officially collect figures, they suspect the real number is far higher.

Emmaus estimates that three and a half million people are in temporary shelters or in very bad quality housing in France. The charity believes that more than six and a half million people are in what is called a ‘fragile’ housing situation, where their accommodation could be at risk.

Official winter in France lasts from the first of November to the 15 March – it’s a time when no tenant can legally be thrown out of a property, even if they haven’t paid the rent. So come the end of March, there are many more people finding themselves homeless.

Recently, Emmaus held a demonstration with a pile of mattresses at the place de la republique in the centre of Paris highlighted the number of people who were threatened with being put out on the street.

A big debate is underway about the best way to tackle the problem – from regular calls to requisition the many empty buildings to obliging the homeless to go into hostels. Nicolas Sarkozy’s government has introduced a new law, the so called DALO (droit au logement opposable) law which gives a statutory right to shelter to any citizen and, more importantly, the right to petition the state to enforce that right.

Homelessness is a topic that makes the French uncomfortable. It surfaces every winter with an emotional headcount of people who have died of the cold across the country, always making the lead item on the television news. But campaigning organisation are keen to stress that there can be as many deaths in summer and people die in the street for all sorts of reasons – alcohol, fighting, accidents etc.

Many French governments have tried to tackle the problem. One approach was to force people living on the streets into hostels and temporary accommodation.
Until 1994 there was a law that prohibited so called ‘vagabondage’ and begging and those found in the street were scooped up and taken to shelters, only to find themselves back on the streets a few days later.

A special police brigade tours Paris every night and tries to persuade people to go their refuge in Nanterre, which can accommodate up to 250 people a day. Many people refuse to go. Figures show that in one year they took almost 14,000 people to Nanterre but 7,000 refused help.

One of the reasons was overcrowding – dormitories where more than 100 people might sleep in the same room. Now the facilities have been modernised they’ve introduced smaller rooms for up to four to six people and individual showers.

One police officer who has been with the brigade for 23 years has seen changes in the people becoming homeless. ‘In the past, sleeping on the street could be a choice,
now anybody’s life can tip over into the street,’ he said

The real problem in dealing with the homeless crisis seems to be the lack of a long term strategy. Crisis management gets people off the streets and in the depths of winter makes good television, as the French are annually horrified by the idea of people sleeping in tents in parks on the outskirts of their capital city.

In an open letter to the minister for housing, Christine Boutin, when two more homeless people were found dead in the street, the Collectif les morts dans la rue said. ‘This time you can’t say it’s just isolated cases nor that it’s down to the cold or the refusal of people to go into your refuges. France is sick with homelessness.’

Emergency places will never be any more than temporary solutions. But the introduction of the DALO – a law which guarantees the right to housing to people who can’t afford housing of their own – has brought hope. It immediately made homelessness more visible and has been welcomed by campaigning organisations by putting into statute the right for people to go to law to establish a claim.

The problem is that French bureaucracy is legendary in its lethargy and working your way through the system is a minefield of paperwork, despite the very straightforward and helpful government ‘how to’ website which makes it look like a breeze. Just getting a dossier with all the right official stamps together needed to access the law can be a huge challenge, especially for people in a precarious housing situation.

The Abbé Pierre Foundation is one of many organisation that has welcomed the law but says ‘the law doesn’t guarantee, far from it that priority cases will get a roof over their heads, because there isn’t enough available housing’. It also highlight the continuing declining standards in housing stock in poor areas and the particular problems of the elderly poor.

The Collectif les morts dans la rue says several measures need to be taken immediately. It wants stronger preventive measures – so vulnerable people from prisons, hospitals and psychiatric patients should have proper help to prevent them ending up on the street.

They’ve also noticed a new and worrying trend in homeless people – people who are living on the street even though they are still working – they simply can’t afford the high price of accommodation.
The DALO law does provide incentives for the construction of new low cost housing units and the government recently announced that they were pumping 100 million Euros to fund new housing. Campaigning groups say a massive building programme of houses and flats, where people can stay long-term, is desperately needed.

Christine Boutin seemed to signal a change in policy when she said that people will no longer be evicted from their homes without being offered some form of rehousing and that she wants the traditional 15 March eviction date to disappear.

And President Sarkozy recognised that the right to housing is a human obligation. But for how much longer will homeless people continue to die on the streets of France?