The image of homelessness in Paris has a seedy charm: the jolly clochard slumbering on the banks of the Seine, clutching his litre of cheap wine. The reality is very different
Click to follow
SEVERAL times a day, in the charmless west Paris suburb of Nanterre, special windowless buses disgorge their cargoes on to the pavement. One might not think so from the dour, impersonal manner of the drivers, but they are unloading human beings: old and young, men and women, the defeated, the demoralised, the alcoholic, the physically and mentally ill.

They are, in the jargon of the trade, the SDFs, the Sans Domiciles Fixes; the doors outside which they are being unloaded are those of CHAPSA, the Centre d'Hebergement et d'Assistance aux Personnes Sans Abri. With winter still lingering, they might be expected to look relieved at the prospect of a night in a shelter. They don't. Rather, they have the look of people abandoning hope.

"It is the end of the road, the end of the civilised world, a completely hostile, violent, hopeless environment," says Jean-Louis Courtinat, the photographer who took the pictures on these pages. "At CHAPSA you are immediately overwhelmed by the misery."

Courtinat visited CHAPSA every day for 18 months, and discovered a dark world that is peculiarly brutal. The homeless can, it is true, eat, wash and shave there; they can be deloused, reclothed and given some medical treatment. But they do so at the price of a degradation that strips them of whatever vestiges of dignity they have managed to preserve in their drifting existence. Rounded up, more or less willingly, by les bleus (blue- uniformed volunteers working for the shelter), they are supervised when they get there by les oranges. These are former inmates, dressed in orange, who, for a few handfuls of francs a month, exercise a sometimes savage authority over those who have fallen even deeper into the abyss than themselves.

"It's disgusting," said one man, seated in a courtyard with two others, sneaking swigs from a bottle of cheap wine, smuggled into the centre in contravention of the house rules. He goes there most days, he said - except in the summer, when he heads south. Nearby, staff were washing down the inside of one of the buses with a high-pressure hose.

The centre is a wing of a large hospital complex, built originally as a beggars' prison at the end of the 19th-century. The city authorities have not seen fit to spend money on the refuge, and conditions in some parts of it are revolting. The showers, which afford no privacy, are filthy; the main men's dormitory consists of rows of double bunk-beds, packed so tightly that inmates have to crawl over each other to reach their few allotted square feet of sleeping space. There are no sheets; the mattresses are squalid rectangles of foam rubber.

Next weekend, the dormitories at CHAPSA will become even more crowded. The implacable logic of French bureaucrats decrees that winter ends this Friday, in the same way that it began exactly four months earlier, and with the official arrival of spring many of Paris's other state-run refuges for the homeless will close their doors until November. A few of their inmates will head for the warm south; many will return, with heavy hearts, to CHAPSA.

Superficially, the problem of homelessness in Paris is less severe than in London: there are an estimated 16,500 homeless in the centre of Paris (population 2m) compared with around 75,000 in central London with its population of 7m. There is no equivalent of the packed doorways of London's Strand or the encampments in concrete underpasses - partly because the police round up many SDFs and take them to shelters. But they are to be found throughout the city, huddled on gratings, on benches and in church doors - and at CHAPSA.

A staff of doctors and nurses at the centre does what it can to tend the tide of human misery that floods in every day. Public hospitals elsewhere in the Paris region regularly decant their homeless patients on to Nanterre: cases of tuberculosis, people with terrible skin conditions, with advanced alcoholism - some of the centre's clients drink seven or eight litres of cheap wine a day.

"What we do here is in the name of society, it's a public institution," says Dr Jacques Hassin, head of health and medical services at CHAPSA, welcoming Courtinat's photographic essay. "As long as we are shut away from the public eye things will continue."

There are signs of change. The oranges are being phased out. The medical facilities are being upgraded. A pounds 6m rebuilding scheme is due to get under way next year. A central plank in Jacques Chirac's recent presidential election campaign was a crusade against the "fracture sociale" of which the men and women of Nanterre are such evident victims.

For the present, though, Nanterre will continue to take in and treat an average of 250 homeless people a day in conditions that Dr Hassin describes as reminiscent of the Middle Ages. !

Left and top left: the homeless arrive at the Centre d'Hebergement et d'Assistance aux Personnes Sans Abri (CHAPSA) in windowless buses. The shelter in Nanterre, a featureless suburb west of Paris, takes in 250 vagrants a day. They are collected off the streets and come to the former beggars' prison more or less voluntarily. Others, less willing, are bussed there by the public transport authority which "cleans out" the metro stations at regular intervals.

Waiting for a bed, inmates sometimes have to kip down where they can. Above, men sleep outside the shower room.

Right: a resident, incapacitated by drink and sickness, is hosed and scrubbed down. Much of the supervision at the hostel is by former inmates, known as les oranges after their uniforms, who work for a few francs and sometimes exercise a savage authority over those even less fortunate than themselves.

Far right: some of many 18- to 25-year-olds in the shelter. Most are desocialised and psychologically damaged; many shelters in Paris refuse to take them in.

Below right: personal possessions are checked in on arrival.

Below: an assistant shaves a new arrival's lice-infested head.

Below left: a man is treated for scabies. Staff at Nanterre have to contend with complaints from TB to acute alcholism