They call it the city of light, but Paris can be a dark and ugly place, especially for the homeless.
History, monuments, palaces, chic boutiques, bars, restaurants, gardens with gravelled paths, sculpted trees and hedges, fountains – this is Palais Royal. It’s a quaint little quartier, steeped in the ambience of old Paris. But charm and atmosphere mean little to the SDF or sans domicile fixe (without fixed address, or homeless) of the Premier Arrondissement. An eighteenth century colonnade, an arched passage, a Galerie from the Belle Epoque, is just a place to shelter from the sun and rain, or to sleep under shadow of the night.
He sits all day on the pavement in front of the colonnades outside Galerie Colbert on Rue des Petits Champs, with his cases packed beside him. People and cars pass, buses stop, but not for him. As I stoop to drop some coins in his little basket, the kind that might sit on any French table filled with bread, his eyes lock on mine accusingly. I can’t look away. He’s talking, pointing, angrily, urgently. I don’t understand his words, they’re rushed, garbled, neither French, nor English, but his story is plain, it’s one of pain, loss, grievance, blame and grief. I tear myself away, feeling useless, sorry, guilty. He shouts after me as I hurry across the road. From a corner table in chic Café Pistache, I watch him, still muttering and gesticulating furiously, spread his grubby bedding against the back wall, under the arch and stack his cases close around him for the night.
It’s summer in Paris at present, the nights are warm and the days are long so, although no less miserable the homeless are not quite so vulnerable, at least not to the elements. But in a few months the days will draw in, the nights will lengthen and the plight of the people on the streets of Paris will be desperate.