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Essay/
Anthropology

Homeless Gustave, 75, sits in front of the tent where he lives near the Boulevard Périphérique in Paris. Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty

At home with the homeless

Is a home made of bricks and mortar or hopes and dreams? Dispatches from among the rough sleepers on the streets of Paris

Johannes Lenhard

Homeless Gustave, 75, sits in front of the tent where he lives near the Boulevard Périphérique in Paris. Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty

Johannes Lenhard

is research associate and coordinator at the Max Planck Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change.

Brought to you by curio.io, an Aeon partner

3,100 words

Edited by Sally Davies

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The park wardens woke up François almost every morning. They found him sleeping under the roof of the little shed in the playground, below the Church Saint-Vincent-de-Paul and about five minutes’ walk from the Gare du Nord railway station in Paris. ‘They leave me alone but I have to get up,’ he told me. 

I met François in 2015. He was a boisterous man in his mid-50s, who loved to sing French chansons in a smoky baritone. When he recounted the tales of Yves Montand and Édith Piaf, it felt like the street itself was singing. François understood himself as a gitan, a French gypsy, a traveller of the world who wouldn’t rest at one place for too long. After a decade-long relationship that brought him three children (the names of whom François had tattooed along his arms), he left his family to return to life on the road. For more than eight years since then, he has been homeless, begging, drinking and singing, between central Paris and its peripheral banlieues.

In 2012, there were 28,800 people in Paris living sans domicile (homeless), according to the most up-to-date figures from the French statistical agency. That’s 84 per cent more than in 2001. Most of these people were male (59 per cent), single (67 per cent) and foreign (56 per cent). The large majority lived in temporary accommodation (22 per cent in hotels, 17 per cent in social apartments, 47 per cent in homeless shelters). My research mostly concerns people such as François who are part of the remaining 14 per cent: those who live on the street, who neither have a place in a shelter nor an income, and who are most affected by mental-health issues and addiction. The people I worked with during two years of ethnographic research in Paris were called sans abris (without shelter) or sans domicile fixe (without fixed abode). In English, they would be rough sleepers.

Classical social-science accounts of homelessness tend to put such marginalised populations into the ‘suffering slot’, as the American anthropologist Joel Robbins has called it. Homeless people have been described as ‘dopefiends’, ‘the useless’ and ‘half-dead zombies’. Many of these depictions aim to grasp the reasons for homelessness, marginalisation and exclusion through the lenses of inequality, structural violence and social suffering. In the most prominent French example of this genre, the Belgian ethnologist and psychoanalyst Patrick Declerck describes the ‘clochardisation’ (immiseration) of people on the streets of Paris in the 1980s and ’90s, and the impossibility of their reintegration into mainstream society.

My observations mirror many of these accounts: homelessness is very much the product of the malfunction of social, economic and welfare systems, paired with life events such as mental or physical illness, divorce, death and domestic violence. But what might surprise outsiders is that the people I met on the street often didn’t think of themselves as abject or suffering. In Oneself as Another (1990), the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur defines suffering as ‘the reduction, even the destruction of the capacity for acting, of being-able-to-act’. I observed how my informants, such as François, were actively struggling to make homes on the street, both literally and symbolically, not simply sitting still. Focusing on the negative and stifled experiences of the homeless invariably produces an incomplete picture, and obscures the creative and resourceful practices that people deploy to deal with their situation. It becomes impossible to ask certain ethical questions, such as what it would take to have a good life, a better life, or even a home, on the streets.

Whenever I was with him, François was constantly working with the resources the city provided: passers-by giving money, park benches to sleep on, shed roofs, public toilets, supermarkets, taxi drivers. He was on the watch – especially for half-consumed cigarettes, butts still burning, thrown away by Parisians rushing by. One day, he took me on as his temporary apprentice. ‘I will show you how I work now,’ he said. ‘Come with me.’

We were sitting right in front of the glass façade on the west side of the Gare du Nord, close to the departure lounges of the Eurostar trains to London. It was getting late, but some summer sunlight remained. One taxi after another drove up in front of us. François walked to the front of the row and knocked on the driver’s window. The man shook his head. François didn’t persist: somehow he knew, from years of experience, whom he could make money from. Confidence was key. The next car had its window open. François addressed the man inside:

T’as une petite pièce ou une cigarette, chef?’ (‘Do you have change or a cigarette, boss?’)
Je n’fume pas. Mais, tiens.’ (‘I don’t smoke but take this,’ he said, handing over a 50 cent coin.)
Merci, chef.’ (‘Thanks, boss.’)

The donor nodded at him as François ambled to the next car, smiling. He turned to me: ‘Not too hard, is it?’ The row of about 20 cars brought in €1.50 and two cigarettes in less than 10 minutes.

The American anthropologist Edward Fischer, paraphrasing Aristotle, said that the good life is ‘a life worth living’, or a journey towards ‘a fulfilled life’. It has to do with happiness but is not limited to it; it’s often – perhaps counterintuitively – linked to commitment and sacrifice, to the work of becoming a particular person. The French philosopher Michel Foucault in 1982 described these practices as technologies of the self. According to Foucault, the self is ‘not given to us … we have to create ourselves as a work of art’. My informants on the streets of Paris were striving – in their own ways – towards being better selves. I came to understand the activities, processes and routines that they engaged in – begging, making a shelter, accessing temporary housing, etc – as practices of the self geared towards a better life, as practices of homemaking on the street, as practices of hope.

While it is challenging to imagine leading a fulfilled life on the street, what can a better life look like? I observed on a daily basis how feelings of potential broke through the suffering. As the American anthropologist Cheryl Mattingly writes in The Paradox of Hope (2010), about chronically ill people in the United States:

Hope as an existential problem takes cultural and structural root as it is shaped by the poverty, racism and bodily suffering endemic to so many of the families I write about … [H]ope emerges as a paradoxical temporal practice and a strenuous moral project … Hope most centrally involves the practice of creating, or trying to create, lives worth living even in the midst of suffering, even with no happy ending in sight.

Aside from François, others I met on the streets of Paris – such as Sabal from India, and Alex from Kosovo – talked about their engagement in such practices of hope. Following them through soup kitchens, drop-in centres, government institutions and homeless shelters, I observed two main ways in which they attempted to push for a better life. Both of them were connected to the idea of home: my informants in Paris were longing to find and go back to a homeland, often one from the past, while on a daily basis they were struggling to construct a home in order to survive. That was what a better life looked like for them.

I met Sabal in December 2014 late at night. He was sitting a stone’s throw from the main entrance of the Gare du Nord, with his friend and fellow Punjabi, Bouti. The pair weren’t in good shape: they were slouching on the pavement without blankets, or even the typical layers of cardboard underneath them. Sabal and Bouti had wrapped themselves in a thin piece of cloth, pushed against each other, intermittently falling asleep from both alcohol and fatigue.

Sabal had come to France in 2013, having escaped from an Indian prison after spending time in South Korea and Italy. He never told me why he was in prison beyond the fact that it had ‘something to do with a knife’. Somehow, he was able to make his way to Korea, where he spent time in prison for another offence, and finally to Italy. Sabal’s French was still not good enough to converse with me. He addressed me in English: ‘Please – I am hungry. Can you help me? Please?’ As I learnt over time, Sabal mostly spoke Punjabi, surrounded by the group of people who also included Bouti.

Home is about one’s hopes, about making home an imagined place where one has not yet arrived

It took me months to notice the bracelet that Sabal was wearing. The item was unpretentious, an unembellished iron band around his right wrist. It was a kara, one of the signs of being an initiated member of the Sikh religion. Sabal was a firm believer, which came with a certain confidence. ‘I know I am a good person and that God loves me. I will find a way out of here,’ he said. ‘God will help me.’ Sabal hadn’t lost his hope and the longing to get away from the street – and ultimately, away from France. Unlike Bouti, who hadn’t yet married, Sabal’s wife and young daughter back in India gave him a strong reason to return. ‘I haven’t seen her in almost six years. I haven’t talked to her for almost a year. I want to be with her. But I will.’ He also mentioned that he missed the Golden Temple close to his house; the memory seemed to keep him alive. His plans even included Bouti: ‘We will both go home, won’t we? I will take you to my house, and we will go to the temple together.’

For many of the homeless people I’ve met in both London and Paris, home was connected to a place they departed from and have a desire to return to – a place that carried what the English sociologist Liz Kenyon calls a right to return and a sense of one’s origin. Sara Ahmed’s 1999 study of migrants’ writing, particularly Asian women living in Britain, supports this view of home as something in the longer-term future. The British-Australian scholar wrote that home is often a destination, somewhere to travel to: ‘the space which is most like home, which is most comfortable and familiar, is not the space of inhabitance – I am here – but the very space in which one finds the self as almost, but not quite, at home. In such a space, the subject has a destination, an itinerary, indeed a future, but in having such as destination, has not yet arrived.’ Home is, in this sense, not about the present – and surely not a place of passive suffering – but about one’s hopes, about making home an imagined place where one has not yet arrived.

For Sabal, this place is back home in India or, more specifically, a version of it in which he is not persecuted and has enough resources to take care of his family properly. He rooted the security of his future happiness and better life in idealised memories. Sabal didn’t like to talk about his legal problems in his home country. Since being abroad, India had become a symbol of his family, his religion, his belonging in the past. In France, the only stable connection to this part of home was his memory and the community of Punjabis he was part of. Speaking his language kept the memory alive. Constantly reproducing and feeding an idealised, memorised version of his homeland was about Sabal’s future. This also gave Sabal a motivation to endure what might be at times painful suffering in the present. The hope for a better future translated into a short-term will and strength to build and make a home on a day-to-day basis.

The homeland was only one kind of home I encountered during my research. It was an idea connected to the future, to hope and longing. Another version of home concerned the present, and was much closer to daily survival. Alex, who arrived in France from Kosovo more than 15 years ago, was forced to physically make and remake a home for himself on an almost daily basis. He had not managed to secure a right to stay, and was struggling to attain refugee status and government support. Alex had been on the street, on and off, for the past five years.

When I met him, Alex had picked a seemingly random spot just opposite Gare de l’Est. When he was not at a homeless centre, Alex would spend his days and nights here. The building, owned by the French national rail company SNCF, was equipped with cosy nooks in between massive stone pillars. He was on the eastern side, protected by a small roof five stories above. Alex’s corner – only one of several niches that were inhabited at any one time – was the one closest to the exit. His place was usually overlooked by one of the numerous police officers patrolling the station. For Alex, the police presence was one reason to pick this particular spot: unlike many of his homeless acquaintances, he saw the police as a source of security. They made sure he was physically protected; they kept the area around the train station free of violence; they kept the place in order.

Not only was Alex very careful about the surroundings of his sleeping place, but also about its orderliness. When I first approached him in early 2015, I immediately noticed how neatly arranged the little alcove was. The pieces of cardboard that served as floor coverings were ripped so that they fitted perfectly into the two square metres of space between the stone walls. Two layers of cardboard separated Alex from the cold stone underneath him; another formed the wall behind him. The whole construction looked like a custom-made, built-in wardrobe.

Alex sat on the beige board as he showed me the rest of his trottoir-salon (living room on the pavement). During the day, his belongings were meticulously put away in a backpack and a plastic bag. Whenever he left the niche, he took these two bags with him. He owned a second set of clothes too, trousers, a T-shirt, a pullover, underwear and socks. They were important possessions, something to change into on wet days. His dirty laundry was stored in the backpack wrapped in a plastic bag, separate from the other things. His sleeping bag was always attached to the backpack when he left. Alex considered this sleeping bag his most important possession, the most minimal home imaginable.

Home is a process, involving the material and the imaginative, social connections and mundane acts

Home, according to the Australian social scientist Shelley Mallett, is always suspended between the ideal and the real. It relates to ‘the activity performed by, with or in person’s things and places. Home is lived in the tension between the given and the chosen, then and now.’ While Sabal’s India was part of the ideal, what Alex was dealing with was closer to the ‘real’ side of this distinction. His home-making efforts were a continuous process of daily activities.

Home is exactly such a process, involving the material and the imaginative, social connections and mundane acts. Routines, habits and rhythms – often as simple as regularly visiting certain neighbourhoods, shelters and food kitchens – are important parts of this process, and are deeply connected to a temporal as well as spatial order. This focus on order is best expressed in the classical analysis of home by the English anthropologist Mary Douglas:

[Home] is always a localisable idea. Home is located in space but it is not necessarily a fixed space. It does not need bricks and mortar, it can be a wagon, a caravan, a board, or a tent. It need not be a large space, but space there must be, for home starts by bringing some space under control.

Alex’s daily activities present us with a case where space is literally brought under control. His construction of a shelter – a physical space to sleep – is ultimately an exercise of ordering and, in this sense, the process of daily home-making. He has chosen a niche, decorated it with cardboard and other belongings, and developed spatial habits, such as storing away and separating off certain categories of things (important/less important, clean/dirty) and the closing-off of his space. In fact, whenever he left the space, Alex was very careful to ‘lock it’ behind him. He unfolded a third layer of cardboard and wrapped it in a rectangular shape around the two main layers and a bag with food he left behind. As I looked back, his little niche was perfectly protected against the weather. No rubbish or dirt made it overly suspicious. He was aware of the fact that the security guards of the station opposite didn’t like rubbish lying around; instead, he chose to leave behind what looked like a neatly sealed cardboard box to any outsider. The establishment of (spatial) routines was not only an important part of daily survival but also necessary to keep his future open.

Sabal’s desire to return to (what he imagined) was his native home and his family; Alex’s daily, orderly home-making near the Gare de l’Est; François’s begging all were different sides of the same coin. François, Alex and Sabal were working, dynamically and creatively. Dreams, hopes and desires gave them a vision to pursue, an ongoing motivation. On a daily basis, they established routines and rituals to summon up even a temporary sense of home: choosing the right spot to sleep, re-ordering an often public space and turning it into a quasi-shelter; building up regular rhythms for one’s days, engaging with social workers; earning money through begging.

François, who introduced me to the labour of begging, found something close to home in his daily practices. His home was fashioned by coming face to face with the city around him. These narratives show how far removed these people are from a state of passive suffering. Yes, there were moments of idleness and, for some, long phases of pain. But most of the people I met sleeping rough – independent of age, gender, tenure on the street and level of addiction – were striving, in their way, towards a better life: first on, and hopefully off, the street.

Johannes Lenhard

is research associate and coordinator at the Max Planck Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change.

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