Archive for December, 2008

An SDF on politics and religion

December 9, 2008

The verb flâner in French literally means to stroll around a city for the hell of it.  It makes sense they have this verb here because the cities are amazingly beautiful just to look at and be in.  For this reason I have gotten into the habit of exploring on off days.

Passing by one of the large World War I statues honoring the dead ‘pour la gloire de la France’ which you find everywhere here, I saw what appeared to be a homeless man waking up from an afternoon nap.  Surrounded by a grocery cart filled with plastic bags, 2 dogs and a pot of spaghetti, he looked up at me and smiled.  I approached him on my bike, dismounted, and thought I’d ask him if he needed money for food or something to break the ice.  Though it seemed like a rather condescending question since he wasn’t there asking anyone for anything, I knew he’d hear my accent and forget to think twice to judge me.  This was one of the few moments where being a foreigner seemed advantageous.  Not only did I know he wouldn’t immediately judge me, but I also knew that I could ask him stupid questions and generally be nosy about his life situation without offending him, playing it off, at best, as intercultural curiousity or, at worse, ignorance.  The latter being the case in this instance, my first idiotic question after handing him the 2 euro piece was, ‘So, you sleep in the street all the time?  You must not like it.’  I realized I had to say something else when he gave me the blankest of blank stares.  ‘Uh, it must be really hard.’  That was better I guess ’cause he said, ‘Yeah, it’s hard.’  I then played the wildcard and said, ‘Oh I’m sorry, I’m from North America and I don’t really know how anything works here.’  This seemed to change his mood.  From now on he could teach me a thing or two and I could just stand and listen.

Over the course of the next few minutes Marcel introduces himself and his dogs Bozo and Daurade, two beautiful and shockingly clean specimens who he referred to as his children.   Marcel has lived in the street for 33 years.  My mouth was gaping when he told me this.  When I asked him how that was possible his response was confused.  It just seemed to be comme ça.  Yet, Marcel hasn’t always slept on the same corner.  He has traveled, living on the streets – and sometimes in the woods – all over France and even going to Rome once.  I asked if he spoke Italian and he laughed.  I asked how it was possible for him to live on the street in a non-French speaking country and he laughed again.  He just spoke French to people apparently.  I suppose that’s not as strange as I thought at the time.  Frequently when I see what appear to be homeless people on the street in France they have the appearance of coming from somewhere else.

Following this, our rapport seemed to sink into a certain comfortability.  He got out some photos and newspapers clippings.  There was Marcel on the street holding a small child… a friend he says.  There was Marcel on the street with someone dressed up like Santa.  The clippings were more intriguing.  One clipping with him looking like your standard raving-mad-homeless-man in the picture (whose online article can be found at was on the subject of SDFs (meaning sans domicile fixe or lacking a fixed address) who die of the cold in the street.  The title, ‘Un SDF qui crève dans la rue, ils en ont rien à foutre !’ meaning ‘Homeless people are dying in the street and nobody fucking cares!’ was a direct quote from Marcel.  He was very proud.  In the article he goes on to say that nobody cares about the homeless, ‘not social workers, not firemen.’  He says he has asked for an apartment but was always refused, government employees even making fun of his request.  ‘Why are there all these fucking empty apartments everywhere?  They could at least let us sleep inside them.  Is that too much to ask?  We aren’t born to live in shit our whole lives.’*

Marcel’s ferocity intrigued me.  It is absurd what he has gone through.  The article mentions problems with alcohol as well as emotional ups and downs that led him to the street in the first place.  Despite a government plan creating 100,000 – a rough estimate of the number of SDFs in France – new accomodations in shelters beginning last winter, it is not so easy for him to find a place because of his dogs.  However, I can’t but be amazed at the fact he was in the newspaper in France with his photo, tirades, and all.  American newspapers would never spotlight the life and concerns of someone so utterly powerless.  In fact, over the last month as the weather has gotten colder and colder, there have been seemingly constant news coverage of dying SDFs.  Recently, a 6th homeless person was discovered dead in their unheated caravan near Paris.  This seemed to spark a national debate.  The poorest of the poor were dying in the streets and people were paying attention; the press was paying attention; the right-wing government was discussing policy, and the president’s 4 or 5 minute speech on the subject was broadcast on the radio in full.  I heard it at least twice.

Nevertheless, following Marcel’s appearance in the press last year, blasting ineffectual government, he was finally ‘dealt with’ by the authorities.  Marcel said he was put into a ‘psychiatric hospital’ and not allowed to leave for one month.  My mouth gaped even wider this time.  How is that fucking possible?!  How can they just lock you up like that, I said.  He sorta shrugged, and said after a month he just left the place.  After looking into it, it turns out that according to degree n° 2006-556 made law on 17 May 2006, the French state is allowed to take homeless people deemed pathologically incapable of rationally making decisions on the status of their shelter – or lackthereof –  into custody for a period not to exceed two months.  ‘Lits Halte Soins Santé’ or Halt Bed Health Care centers are places where these SDFs are put into state custody for mental health care as well as a social accompaniment – presumably for reinsertion into society.  However, considering that common practice in the United States is to criminalize homelessness outright, thus putting the homeless in jails and prisons as criminals and consequently destroying their record and possibility for a later smooth re-entrance into society, the French solution no longer appears entirely irrational and inordinately inhumane.  Nevertheless, Marcel’s insistance that he was held against his own will for an entire month in a government institution tarnishes the ideal of the perhaps well-intentioned social services that exist for people in precarious social positions.

Following this discussion, which I felt was illuminating and surprisingly politicized, our conversation went slightly downhill.  Marcel made me hold the prized cross around his neck.  He talked spiritually about what the horse shoe, the big A, the fish and the other thing on it meant.  I didn’t really follow but it sounded a bit crazy.  He then started giving me all this Catholic literature, prayer cards, a sheet with “La Prière de St. Germaine de Pibrac” on it, and some other junk.  He then offered to show me some knives.  I felt like the conversation was going on a little bit too long.  I didn’t feel threatened, just more in the mood to continue on my way than to look at his knives.  I said I’d pass by later though.

When I saw Marcel later that night, he was in the same place cooking a small piece of meat on a small gas grill.  He seemed to be crying.  I excused myself for not passing by sooner in the day and he said, ‘No No, It’s fine, it’s no big deal.’  He told me he usually sleeps on my route into town so we’d see each other soon, and we wished each other a good night.

* original text: “Même pas les pompiers, même pas les assistantes sociales : j’ai demandé un appartement. Refusé ! Les gens se sont toujours foutus de ma gueule. Pourquoi ? Et pourquoi y a des putains d’appartements qui sont vides, là ? Au moins qu’ils nous laissent dormir dedans. C’est beaucoup demander, ça ? J’ai tellement les glandes… On n’est pas nés pour vivre dans la merde.”