“Isolation is the first cause of suffering”: in times of lockdown, night walks in Paris are all the more important to support homeless people.
It’s 7:30 pm on Thursday, November 5th, when the team meets at the headquarters of the Red Cross in the 11th district of Paris. Tonight, there are four of them. Damien, Christophe, Daniela and Freddy.
Before going out, Damien, the team leader, goes over the guidelines: when approaching a homeless person, no more than one or two at a time so he doesn’t feel intimidated or in danger. Always introduce yourself, engage conversation and make sure they don’t need anything.
“We do not wake up anyone who is sleeping, because it is very hard to fall asleep when we sleep outside. Unless we think she might die for hypothermia,” Damien explains. “In case you feel in danger for whatever reason, the code is ‘Let’s go see Henry?’ If someone says it, we leave straight away.”
The rest of the team listens carefully. All three of them are in their early 30s. Although they don’t know each other, they adopt a very friendly attitude and all seem to belong here.
“Are you guys afraid of anything?” Damien asks, “Blood? Dogs? Nothing? Alright let’s go then!”
Photo: Maraude from Croix Rouge Paris
With these words, the team leaves the headquarters and plunges into the darkness of Paris’s lockdown to proceed to their maraude. Organised by the Red Cross, these walking groups take place once a week, sometimes twice if enough volunteers show up. The walks will usually last for 3 hours, but volunteers can be up to 5 hours outside, according to the needs of the people they will meet. The Red Cross has headquarters in most of Paris’ districts but also all over France, in order to bring social support to homeless people, a need all the more important in these times of confinement.
According to the organisation Entourage, “what kills on the street is social isolation”. Living alone leads to the progressive loss of social codes, sometimes to the denial of one’s body and needs and eventually to his dehumanisation, explains the organisation. In 2019, they launched a campaign to raise awareness and encourage people to interact with homeless people. According to them, 65% of the homeless people in France live alone and 85% say they feel rejected by passers-by. In Paris, it is estimated that 4,000 people don’t have a home.
“The absence of social interaction is the first cause of suffering,” explains Damien. “It leads to the loss of self confidence.”
In order to build these social ties, the Red Cross tries to organise night walks as often as possible. “We organise two maraudes per week if we have enough volunteers, explains Damien, the teams are between 3 to 5 people.”
Damien has been volunteering for the Red Cross for 3 years already.
Aged 43, he is tall and thin, with gray short hair. The team leader speaks with a very low and subtle voice, almost like he’s afraid to bother as he speaks.
“I first joined to be part of the first aid men, because I’ve been trained in first care.” But then he realised that it was in the maraudes that the Red Cross needed volunteers.
“The Maraudes are not for everyone, because they don’t bring the sense of being useful that volunteers usually seek.” Damien explains. The result of our work is not immediate. We aim for a long term objective: creating social links between us and the homeless people so they don’t become completely excluded from society.”
It’s been a week since the second lockdown started in Paris. The maraude starts on rue Saint-Maur, a street well known for its numerous bars and restaurants, but instead of music and loud chatting, an uncomfortable silence has taken over the neighbourhood. Bars are closed and restaurants are empty. The ones still fighting to stay open covered their windows with signs saying “We do delivery”, but no one seems to show up.
Photo: Maraude from Croix Rouge Paris
A few minutes into the maraude, the team stops to assist Nicolas. He’s sitting inside a laundromat to protect himself from the cold. Damien and Christophe both go inside as the rest of the team waits patiently outside. After a few minutes, they walk out to ask Daniela to prepare a soup and to hand him a pack of kleenex.
Daniela is originally from Ecuador. She decided to join the maraude because she was very overwhelmed by the amount of people living in the streets when she moved to Paris. “It really affected me and I felt like I had to do something. For me, it was the fact that they were completely ignored in the streets that got to me, so I thought this was the best way to reach out to them,” she explains.
As she prepares the soup, Daniela explains that the team always has the minimum necessary with them during the night walks. “We always pack with us some coffee, tea, soup and some canned food. But also clothes, underwear, razors or condoms.”
When needed, the team also refers homeless people towards different care structures: Psychologists, podiatry care, social care or administrative support.
After a good 20 minutes talking with Nicolas in the laundromat, the team moves on.
Since they walk only in the 11th district of the city, Damien explains they often meet the same three or four people. With time, they manage to build social links with them, so when they meet in the street they take the time to catch up and have long discussions.
As the night goes on, the team stops to check on 10 different people, all men.
“We don’t see many women in the street, not because they aren’t any but because they often hide to protect themselves,” Damien explains.
Women represent 38% of the homeless, according to the latest INSEE data from 2012. In the 18–29 age group, they account for 48%.
“They hide because they face different risks,” Damien continues. “A woman opened up to me once and explained she was being hit by her partner and she did not know what to do about it.”
According to the Entourage association, every eight hours, a homeless woman is sexually assaulted in France. The threats they face everyday are all the more important with the lockdown.
“Less people in the street means less witnesses and women are therefore more exposed to assailants,” Damien explains.
The situation became much more complicated with Covid-19, according to Damien.
“During the first confinement, everything was closed, showers, water spots. This time, they stayed open, but it is still harder, there are fewer people in the street to ask for help and the feeling of isolation grows stronger and stronger.”
This feeling of insecurity is shared by the other homeless people they meet during the walk. Charles has been living in the street for almost 30 years. Gray hair, dark skin and smiling eyes, he waves at Damien as he recognizes him. “It’s good to see you, with this second lockdown, the atmosphere has been very depressing in the streets of Paris,” he says. Since the lockdown started, the feeling of isolation is much more important for Charles. With restaurants and bars closed, there’s fewer people to interact with and a lot of homeless people decided to leave the city.
“It’s worse than the first lockdown, he explains. In march, people were worried about us, living in the street, because what was happening was something they had never witnessed before. But now it seems like everyone is so depressed to be confined again that they are closing themselves up.”
His face is marked by smile lines and his eyes shine with intelligence. “Why are you cleaning the street?” Asks Christophe. Charles stops brooming the pavement for a second and looks at him with a smile before explaining: “I’m moving! There are too many people here, I like my quiet so I can read my books in peace.” Indeed, behind him is a long line of tents. More and more people started settling there since the building above offers protection to the rain. As he mentions reading, Damien pulls out a book from his bag.
“I don’t know if you finished the last one we gave you already, but I brought another one just in case.” Charles’ eyes shine with excitement as he reaches out for the book and says “I just finished it, it was great, a book with suspense and mystery, my favourite!”
Daniela serves him a coffee and asks if he needs anything else. “I’m fine,” he answers with a smile, reaching for the hot drink. And so, the team moves on.
Photo: Romain Nicolas — Maraude from Croix Rouge Paris
Once the team is back at the headquarters, they take time to change, disinfect all the equipment and proceed to discuss the maraude. For Damien, this final talk is crucial.
Each member of the team takes the floor to express how they felt tonight.
“It is important to share how you feel, if anything affected any one of you tonight, if you don’t want to discuss it now, you can call me anytime. I’m always available if you need to talk.”
They discuss what is missing and what they need to bring for the next Maraude, and before saying goodbye, Damien reminds them they can reach out to him if needed.
“I’m really happy that I came, says Daniela, it puts things in perspectives. I was complaining a lot to my boyfriend that I couldn’t leave my house and that I wanted to be outside, and this maraude reminded me that I should be more appreciative of what I have.”
“I second that, says Freddy, isolation is really hard, but to think that Charles and everyone else have to endure it outside with winter slowly showing up, I’ll think twice before complaining. I’m really looking forward to the next Maraude.”