When poverty no longer shocks

As days go by, Calais’s jungle is stepping out of the flashes’ reach, giving in to a feeling of helplessness and laissez-faire. It is here, and we know it. But somehow, we come to accept it. How is it that we get used to misery?

panhandling in paris
Flickr / CC / Barbara Oggero

Some have had enough. Médecins du Monde and the Secours Catholique filed a  summons for urgent proceedings on October 26. The judge must set a hearing within 48 hours to examine in which conditions refugees live (or more accurately, survive) in Calais. If he concludes on abuses, the French State will have to act. This cry for help follows one for attention: last week, 800 French artists signed a petition. “Until when will we keep silent?” it reads. Calais’ jungle is appalling, it is inhumane and yet it stays. Like other kinds of poverty it stays, because it is so much easier to close our eyes.

Take Paris, and its well known routine. Métro, boulot dodo and a couple of panhandlers with dead looks in their eyes. Closer than Calais’ camp, it is something we see every day and every hour, but few are those who still react.

Just another brick in the wall

As I walk the streets of Paris, turning down hopes one after the other, my stomach knots up. Another man comes up behind me and asks for money. I barely see his face. And then it hits me, how hypocritical I was with my oversized allures of Tintin, heroically (or so I thought) taking on the largely undocumented subject of panhandling in Paris.

Instead, I find myself muttering perforce a shy apology and stumbling away. It’s hard to walk straight when you look down at your feet. Poverty is all around us, but we no longer see it.

A few blocks on, I give myself a kick and meet Alex, a 20 year-old who has been living in the streets for the past four years. His blond hair is tangled in filth. Alex is my age, but the paths we’ve traveled could not be more different. “I get 10 euros a day, and it’s all that I need,” he says. “If I try harder, I can make a lot more. Maybe even 150 euros.” But he’s not asking for that much. All he wants is a tomorrow.

Visible, but unseen

Like the other thousands of beggars who obscure the “city of lights”, Alex feels ignored. Hated, sometimes. I myself am not one to stop.

Do we just stop caring?

There are those who walk by, cast in shame and a feeling of helplessness. Christian, a firefighter, will not give a penny. “It never ends,” he says. “And that’s not about to change.” In six minutes, his train will take him home to a suburban pavilion, far from the incessant cries for help lurking the streets of Paris. “We live with it,” he says. “Somehow, we get used to misery.”

13632134644_2fd0c86f41_zFlickr / CC / Some guy called Darren

And there are those whose hearts break at every street corner. Like Jacqueline, a retired bookseller who empties her wallet on a daily basis. “It’s not normal that so many people need a nickel and a dime to live,” she says. She even has a “regular”, a homeless man who begs near her market in the 13th district of Paris.

Begging: the word says it all. It speaks of humiliation and of need, of those who have to kneel to survive.

Only 1% to 2% stop and help

“It’s wrong to say that beggars are invisible,” says Chris Olivier, former associate director of the Philantrophy Research Center (CerPhi). The study she conducted in 2011 told of hardship and rejection. “Beggars place themselves on purpose so as to be seen and heard,” says Chris Olivier. “They bother because they are visible.” Results showed that between 1 and 2 out of 100 passerbys donated to an aged woman. These numbers dropped to between 1 and 1.5 for 1000 for a less looked-after foreign-typed woman.

8307864787_08ed759718_zFlickr / CC / David Cruchon

“But what is invisible is the reality of what they live,” says Mrs. Olivier. In an interview for Le Figaro in 2011, she spoke of panhandling as “work for convicts”: “psychologically and physically, it is extremely difficult. And all for a couple of euros.”

For her, speaking of panhandling as a job is completely off key. The CerPhi did not look into the organized crime networks, a phenomenon Chris Olivier believes to be “largely fantasized”. “These are people who are really in need,” she says, before adding, “go see for yourself”.

Marion Biremon


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