Paris officials sleep outdoors to call attention to homeless

Braving a Siberian blast sweeping across Europe, around two dozen officials from the Paris region spent a night outdoors to call attention to the plight of the homeless.

On waking up early Thursday near the Austerlitz train station, the officials from an array of political parties were greeted by a city blanketed with snow.

Mama Sy, deputy mayor of Etampes, south of Paris, said the reason she and others braved the conditions was to declare: "Stop! This situation can't continue."

At least 13 homeless people have died in the Paris region since the start of the year. The count is imperfect because some organizations include the homeless who die in a hospital or emergency housing, and all say the real number will never be known and could be higher.

Sy reckons the number could be 20.

President Emmanuel Macron's aspiration that anyone without shelter should be off the streets of France by the end of 2017 clearly hasn't materialized. It's a bigger problem than he seemed to realize.

Paris is no stranger to homeless people. Decades ago, homeless men stretched out on a bench were part of the Paris scenery.

Today, the numbers have swelled and include tens of thousands of migrants, some taken to shelters in periodic sweeps, Roma Gypsies or the long-term homeless. Some, less visible, sleep in cars.

Sy, the organizer of the night out, said "it's out of the question" that 6,000 people lodged in places opened for the homeless due to the frigid weather be returned to the streets when temperatures rise next week.

"Before thinking, we protect," she said. "We secure our citizens. After that we think of solutions. We don't do the opposite."

The group, who wore blue, white and red sashes to denote France's national colors and their official status, walked around the neighborhood and spoke to homeless in tents near the train station before finding somewhere to lay down in their sleeping bags for the night.

Abdelsalem Hitache, a deputy mayor of Le Blanc-Mesnil, a working class town north of Paris, found a spot with colleagues on a busy street corner, over a Metro grate. It was -2 Celsius (28 Fahrenheit) and snowflakes tumbled down.

He said he felt "just like people who sleep outside (permanently) ... For me it's a night. For them it's a life."