July 21, 2006

Paris homeless face pressure to clear summer streets

By James Mackenzie

PARIS (Reuters) - French authorities are trying to clear
Paris of hundreds of tents housing homeless people just as the
annual "Paris Plages" event turns the banks of the Seine into
an artificial beach.

Small clusters of tents, many provided by the humanitarian
organization Medecins du Monde, have become a common sight in
parks and squares in the French capital with many set up near
tourist areas including along the Seine.

"It's really been much better since we've had the tents,"
said Jacquot Bouttefort, 50, sitting at a table set up outside
a small improvised camp on a shady pavement in central Paris.

"You're OK, you can do what you want, you can look after
your things, I don't know where they think we'd go otherwise."

He said relations with residents were generally good and
during a conversation of an hour or so, several passers-by
stopped briefly to say hello or leave change in a cup guarded
by a large stuffed dog Bouttefort recovered from a rubbish bin.

But for Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, who has done much to liven
up the public spaces of Paris and who created the annual "Paris
Plages" open air event, the camps are an eyesore and a growing
health risk in the current heatwave.

He has pledged "firm and humane" action to move them.

Authorities say the plan is prompted by concern about
health and safety in the heatwave that has hit the French
capital along with much of the rest of Europe.

But some homeless dismissed that notion out of hand.

"Why do they think people go camping in summer?," asked
Thierry Savignan, another of the group with Bouttefort.

Humanitarian groups have also criticised the government for
clearing out the homeless to make way for the Paris "beach."

The issue underlines the gap between the prosperous, modern
Paris of tourists, cultural events and high property prices,
and the hard reality for thousands of homeless people.

"Before I used to sleep in a shed near a florist's with
cardboard and I had to get out every morning and move my
things. It was exhausting, terrible," said Catherine Monier,
whose tent stands near to Bouttefort's on the rue Montmartre.

"With a tent, you've got a roof over your head, it really
helps you to be better balanced in your life, just to have
somewhere of your own," she said.

On Friday, the government announced that four new day
shelters would be opened in Paris and the surrounding region
next week along with 130 new sleeping places.

Deputy Social Cohesion Minister Catherine Vautrin named a
mediator to coordinate action to persuade homeless people to
move out of their tents to areas where social workers will be
better able to help them.