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Hidden Homelessness Spreading in Europe
Solve the riddle of the seated sleeping man in the metro
Pierre Joo (pierre_joo)     Print Article 
  Published 2006-05-24 04:44 (KST)   
The sun has set in Paris--how many will spend the night without shelter?
©2006 Pierre Joo

Homeless people are immediately recognized by their appearance, behavior and smell. Or so I thought until a few years ago. One early morning on my way to work, I noticed a neatly dressed fellow in his fifties, sitting on a bench, fast asleep at my metro station in Paris. It took me several other mornings to realize that even if this person was not smelly, that his face was not unshaved or ravaged by the effects of alcohol, he was nonetheless a homeless person, wearing the same coat, seated in the same spot, and asleep in the same position for the past several mornings.

Soon, this homeless person intrigued me: why doesn't he look like the other beggars in the Parisian metro? What could have led his life to spiral all the way down to the Parisian underground? Why is he sleeping seated and well dressed? All of these questions remain unanswered: before I got my courage up to approach him, which was probably a bad idea, given that he was always asleep and that he in all likelikhood did not want a stranger snooping into his story, he vanished.

Seats in the Paris metro
©2006 Pierre Joo
According to the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA), the number of homeless people has been steadily rising in Europe. In France, that number reached 84,000 in 2004. Of these ten to twenty thousand are considered long-term homeless people. This category probably applies to those whose appearance and behavior have deteriorated to a state familiar to the commonly shared image of a street beggar. We may have a compassionate or negative opinion of them, but these people still get at least some attention.

Meanwhile, the rest of the homeless live in total oblivion, unless they seek assistance, or happen to sleep in the same visible spot, with the same dress, in the same position for several mornings in a row.

More metro seats...
©2006 Pierre Joo
Oblivion is probably a homeless person's worst enemy. People end up living in the streets not so much because they hit a succession of troubles, but because when that happens, no one is there to notice and lend a hand. Such a scenario is powerfully depicted in the Wandering Scribe's blog. The Wandering Scribe's story could be that of many homeless people who go unnoticed in the streets of big cities: a young articulate British female who holds a law degree gets caught in a series of setbacks and finds herself out of her place. She spends her first homeless night in her car in August 2005, and has spent all the following ones there ever since.

Different designs...
©2006 Pierre Joo
"Where is my safety net? Why am I not on missing persons lists, and people all over the place desperately looking for me? Why didn't my picture appear on the back of your milk carton this morning? How could someone just step out of a life unnoticed?" she asks. Hopefully, her blog, its thousands of anonymous readers and a few press articles are helping her out of her isolation. Today, the Wandering Scribe seems to be back on the right track.

And yet, they all ...
©2006 Pierre Joo
In Paris, the French NGO Médecins du Monde, or Doctors of the World, is also trying to break the barrier of ignorance about the homeless. This past winter, the organization began distributing tents to people living in the streets of Paris. Doctors of the World hopes the tents will have two positive effects: first, to help the homeless fight the deadly winter cold; and second, once the winter passes and public concerns for people dying of the cold fades, to contribute to making homelessness visible in the streets, and thus to press authorities to address the problem. Not an easy task for Doctors of the World, who will have to fight opposed initiatives.

share one trait...
©2006 Pierre Joo
Which brings us back to one of my early interrogations about this homeless person at my metro station: why was this man sleeping in a seated position? One possible reason could be that this person did not want people to notice that he was a homeless person. Another more visible reason is that the Parisian Metro company RATP has been busy replacing regular benches by specifically designed ones, on which it is impossible to lie down.

All of them are designed to prevent the homeless from lying down.
©2006 Pierre Joo
One step further into customer satisfaction for the RATP; one step further into oblivion for the homeless.

- Hidden Homelessness Spreads in Europe, by Pierre Joo 

©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Pierre Joo

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