My recent backpacking trip had many high points: swimming in the Portuguese sea, enjoying wine in the sun, seeing the Notre Dame… Low points included missing trains, paying through the nose for last minute accommodation, living on crisps and running out of money. But by far the worst experience I had while abroad was seeing a woman and her two little boys living on the street in Paris.
Trying to hold back tears, I smiled weakly as my boyfriend asked me why I was suddenly so moody.
“Sorry honey, but I’m just a bit shocked to see two young children living on the street!”
Holding my hand, he replied “Tegan, they’re hardly the only ones”.
That didn’t really comfort me at all.
I’ve always thought homelessness is a big issue, and I hate the way people tend to ignore it, or assume homeless people are to blame for getting into ”that state”. Even if someone has an addiction, that hardly means they want to sleep on the pavement all year round! In the UK it’s a really big social problem, and I think the government should be doing more to deal with it.
In the town where I grew up there was a group of people locally dubbed ”the brew crew” or ”the bench crew” because they appeared to be homeless alcoholics who spent their days sitting on street benches drinking special brew or occasionally shouting at each other. But in over ten years, I never saw any of them sleeping on the street. They clearly had somewhere to go at night: a squat, a caravan, a friend’s sofa. So I was a bit shocked when I moved to the city and saw dozens of men and a few women sleeping in doorways in all weather.
I think that’s bad enough, but before this week I’d never seen homeless kids sleeping on the pavement. Actually, I was at first glance naive enough to assume this woman and her children were simply resting on their way somewhere. It wasn’t until a few moments later that the truth dawned on me. For a split second I looked into the eyes of this small boy who was calmly lying on his stomach on his mum’s sleeping bag, watching the Parisians and tourists stroll by. He wasn’t much older than my 3 year old brother.
As my boyfriend reminded me, I’m well aware there are plenty of kids living rough all around the world. But firstly, there’s a huge difference between knowing a sad statistic and seeing a real family living that life with your own eyes for the first time. Secondly, I didn’t expect to see it in a rich western country such as France.
I still have no idea why the Paris city council didn’t give that woman somewhere to live. Having two young children and nowhere to go should put you right to the top of any waiting list. The family looked Indian. Of course they could have been French citizens from Indian descent, or they could have recently moved to France. Either way, they still needed somewhere to live.
I think the sight was particularly shocking because it was in such a posh part of Paris. It was hardly a ghetto or a backstreet of New Deli. This family were surrounded by rich Parisian businesspeople sipping overpriced espresso.
My first feeling was bemusement as to why they thought the pavement was a good place to rest, then shock that actually they were clearly living there, then sadness that these little boys wouldn’t be able to fit in with ordinary kids they’re own age, and probably weren’t getting an education either. My next thought was disgust with all the rich onlookers – surely largely parents – who did nothing.
Then I quickly realised that I had myself walked past on my 3 hour trek to the Eifel Tower without helping them.
I felt sick.