‘Pas de logement = pas de vie’ – ‘no housing = no life’. A couple of months ago, posters with this slogan appeared all over the North of Paris as part of a campaign to raise awareness about the over 40,000 homeless people living in the French capital. The posters send a simple message: if you don’t have a roof over your head, you can’t live properly; you can’t exist decently. Without a fixed abode, life is not worthwhile. Living on the street means being life-less. Perhaps the posters caused the odd commuter, shopper, flaneur or café-goer to look twice at a homeless person they might have otherwise ignored; perhaps they even lead some people to stop and talk to one of these purportedly “living dead.” To me, however, the message of the campaign seemed odd.
I work with people on the street on a daily basis as part of my PhD fieldwork. I volunteer in a homeless day centre as well as a van giving out harm reduction material for drug users – everything from syringes to crack pipes – several times a week. I lived in a homeless hostel in the South of Paris for a month earlier this year and spend a considerable portion of my day on the street talking to people. I observe how these people struggle, how they desire and fight, how they want and aim. I observe them living.
The people I talk to on the street – people who beg, sleep rough, take drugs, abuse alcohol – don’t have a roof over their heads; they are ‘sans abris’ (without shelter) and ‘sans domicile fixe’ (without fixed abode). They often live under terrible conditions in the dirt of the pavement, sleep on the bare concrete, or on subway vents to stay warm, are dependent on charities and the pity of passers-by to survive. But they are far from lifeless and, in many ways, they are far from home-less.
Many of the people I regularly see spend a lot of physical and emotional energy on making their home on the street.
When Johny prepares his bed for the night, the first layer consists of cardboard boxes ripped into pieces. The outline of the paper marks a frontier between private and public, separates Johny’s space from everyone else’s. A softer layer of thrown-away carpet and a kind of fluffy mattress makes sitting or lying more comfortable. Johny then cuddles up with a duvet once preparation is complete. A large backpack and a simple plastic bag house Johny’s most important belongings: bottles and a spoon, sometimes a shaver and most importantly a sharp knife; some clothes to change into and a bowl for his dog. Food and drink come in the separate shopping bag. For his dog, Johny always prepares a little extra space, another piece of cardboard where he puts his bowl and a blanket. If Johny is lucky, the police allow his makeshift home to exist semi-permanently for a couple of days or a week. However, they often move him and his belongings more regularly.. Every night, Johny will go through the same routine again either in the niche of a house, on a doorstep or in the corner of a block of flats; sometimes on a bench in a park or an abandoned phone booth.
Homeless people are perhaps most visible and identifiable to the public through acts of home-making like the ones I described for Johny. Yet the practice of ‘home-making’ extends far beyond the creation of a physical space. Feeling safe, secure and warm requires far more than a place of dwelling; home goes beyond the physical.
Some of the homeless people I work with on the street are Hindu. They found each other on the street usually having come to Paris on their way to England. They left India to make money in Europe – or to escape the threat of prison. The train station where the longed-for link to England leaves from became their natural gathering place. It offers a setting in which begging can provide a meagre income and a certain environment of security due to the hoards of police on guard to protect France’s infrastructure under the Plan Vigipirate. In the evenings, when the business of the train station has ebbed down, they sit together in a circle, hidden by a secluded bus stop right behind the station. Taking turns with a beer, they enjoy their Pinnis, a traditional Punjabi nutty sweet, and exchange stories from their past: the golden temples, the strict rules in the family, their wife at home. They speak together in their native Punjabi and start singing Punjabi songs together when it gets really late. These moments remind them of home. Eating familiar vegetables, tasting familiar spices, speaking certain phrases, pronouncing certain sounds, certain looks on familiar faces, certain gestures – all this makes them feel comfortable even when sitting on the bare concrete behind the train station. These things remind them of the houses, the neighbourhoods, the families, the past lives, the cultural surroundings they left behind and helps them re-create some sense of comfort, of security, of home. On the one hand, these rituals invoke sadness: the loss of home. On the other, they provide a sense of purpose, something to work and fight for: ‘home’ as an aim for the future.
Another important dimension of ‘home’ which comes to the fore in the extreme environment on the street is the family – or more often the loss and lack of it. Take Alex, for instance: a young man from Denmark who was kicked out of the military because of his alcoholism and struggles with the absence of his son and his ex-wife from his life. He left them behind in Denmark, a country which he abandoned after it abandoned him as he explains: “I fought for my country, put my life on the line. What do I get now? Just about 150€ a month from the stupid welfare office. They can keep that money. They didn’t take care of me after two of my comrades died. Now, I don’t feel like going there anymore.” Home is not his fatherland anymore, the land he was born in. He feels betrayed by the state and its representatives. He doesn’t even like speaking Danish anymore. That’s one of the reasons why he left for the continent. Paris was his first stop a couple of months ago and he hasn’t yet found a reason to leave. The only things that still tie him to Denmark, are his son and ex-wife – his family as he conceives of it. “I really miss my son. He is almost two now. He needs me and I want to be there for him. I want to be with my family.”
Home is far more than a roof, a fixed place to sleep, a bed in a cozy apartment. Being at home is also about feeling at home, about feeling safe, warm, comfortable. This feeling can come from the built environment, from a roof over one’s head. But a roof is not enough to create a home. Experiences, memories and aspirations turn it into something more than just the bricks and mortar it was made with. And a roof doesn’t even have to be made with shingles; sometimes it is a cardboard-box or a tarpaulin stand in – be it out of necessity or choice.
A home is never a static entity; it demands continuous making and re-making, both materially and spiritually. Such home-making requires work and creativity – something that a lot of the people I have observed and talked to on the street possess. As more and more of the world’s population become displaced in search of new son the street nd better homes, it is time we deploy the same work and creativity in re-thinking the very concept of ‘home’: what does ‘home’ mean?
This question is not only relevant for the supposedly home-less but are important in a myriad of contexts: the housing crisis in London, rents in San Francisco and New York, people in Myanmar are losing their homes to floods , the recent razing of the slums of Islamabad, the massive migration to cities in China or the current migration crisis in Europe.
*ALL NAMES IN THIS ARTICLE ARE PSEUDONYMS TO PROTECT THE IDENTITY OF THE PEOPLE I WORK WITH