French Homeless Make Paris Home

Like many European cities, Paris is trying to deal with the issue of homelessness. Over the last few months, groups of homeless people have created small villages of tents along the Seine, and around the French capital.

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Like many European cities, Paris is trying to deal with the issue of homelessness.

Over the last few months, groups of homeless people have created small villages of tents along the river Seine, and around the French capital. It's part of a campaign to draw attention to the homeless, as Anita Elash reports from Paris.

ANITA ELASH reporting:

The fabled Left Bank of the River Seine is one of the most beautiful and famous urban riverbanks in the world. Boatloads of tourists cruise by, and people picnic by the water.

But others on the riverbank are on a more serious mission.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

ELASH: A doctor from the aid organization Medecins du Monde is visiting a group of street people who live in a cluster of tents. There are 16 tents lined up along the river, with clotheslines strung between trees, clusters of chairs here and there, and a few skateboards scattered about.

Three men are baking bread over an open fire, and others are playing chess or getting drunk.

(Soundbite of the tent settlement)

There are settlements like this all over Paris now. Most of the tents came from Medecins du Monde, which has worked with the homeless in France for 13 years. Since December, they've distributed 300 tents to people who refuse to stay in emergency shelters.

Patrick David is the vice president of Medecins du Monde.

Dr. PATRICK DAVID (Vice President, Medecins du Monde): Now we are sure that living in the street kills people. So, the next step was to show this poverty. When you have one man living on the ground, its not so visible. People can turn their head. They don't - nobody sees him. If you put a tent, it makes that visible and you have to give your point of view about that.

ELASH: Medecins du Monde has certainly attracted attention. In the spring, Parisians started to complain about the eyesore and potential health hazards. It's not illegal to camp or to be homeless in Paris, so last month the socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoé, asked the tent-dwellers to move. So far, few have agreed, and some say that the tent settlements only encourage people to stay on the street.

Xavier Emmanuelli is president of samusocialdeParis, a government-funded agency that provides emergency services for the homeless.

Mr. Xavier Emmanuelli (samusocialdeParis): (Through translator) The more tents you distribute, the more people will buy their own or neighbors will donate them, and that forms a real conglomeration of tents in places that aren't meant for it. They also form groups. You see organizations emerging with leaders, alcohol, and all that. So it's harder for us to get access to them.

(Soundbite of the tent settlement)

ELASH: Back at the tent settlement, a doctor from Médecins du Monde is trying to figure out if a man holding a German Shepherd needs medical attention.

There are said to be between 2,000 and 15,000 homeless in Paris. Bertrand Delanoë has asked for funding for 5,000 new spaces in temporary shelters. One f the street-dwellers, who would only give his name as Rod, says he's been homeless for six years. He sent up his tent three weeks ago and expects that it might take awhile before anybody moves.

ROD (Homeless Person in Paris): (Through translator) The more of us there are sleeping here the less police can do about it. The social services brought us mattresses so that we would be comfortable. And they are happy because we don't make any trouble. Now everyone is happy.

ELASH: A government-appointed mediator is to report on the problem this month. Medecins du Monde says it will keep handing out tents until its satisfied people are being properly housed.

For NPR News, I'm Anita ELASH, in Paris.

(Soundbite of music)

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