Homeless Tent Camps Draw Ire in Paris

Eric Creuly's bedroom is a khaki tent on the banks of a Paris canal. His kitchen is a barbecue made from a metal barrel, and his living room is a set of mismatched chairs where he and friends smoke and watch the pleasure boats pass.

Tent camps have become a familiar sight in Paris since the aid group Doctors of the World, or Medecins du Monde, first distributed tents in December to shelter the homeless and make their plight less invisible.

But complaints about the tents have been pouring into City Hall, and four tents were burned this weekend in circumstances that are still unclear. With Paris sweltering in a heat wave, authorities say the tents are unsanitary and dangerous.

Socialist City Hall wants many of them moved, and the conservative government wants them just plain gone. Last week, the government named a mediator to find a solution.

About 300 tents with the aid group's insignia still dot Paris — and they are even harder to overlook in July, when tourists fill the streets and Parisians live outdoors. Now, some homeless are even saving money to buy tents themselves.

Doctors of the World says it will take down one tent for every permanent housing option provided by the government. It acknowledges the risks of tents — that heat-struck homeless could die hidden from view, for example — but adds that street life is dangerous, no matter what.

"We never said that tents were the solution," said Graciela Robert, who heads the homeless mission for the aid group. "But a tent is better than the sidewalk."

The tents have popped up under bridges on the Seine River, near the stretch of quay where City Hall sets up a sandy beach every summer. They appeared on chic avenues and on the Canal Saint-Martin, a trendy area for nightlife.

Creuly, a 48-year-old construction worker who became homeless after losing his job a year ago, has spent a few weeks living in his girlfriend's Doctors of the World tent. It's better than going to a shelter, he says: He isn't kicked out during the day and doesn't have to worry about his belongings being stolen.

He and his friends — some of whom go by nicknames like "Momo the Cat" and "The Indian" — watch out for each other and take turns guarding their row of tents. Tuesday morning, they drank cold coffee and shared croissants under a parasol from an abandoned ice cream cart.

"We're at home here, we do as we like," Creuly said. He added, however, that he doesn't believe the tents will push the government to help the homeless.

France, with a population of nearly 63 million, has about 86,500 homeless people, according to a landmark 2001 study by the INSEE statistics agency. The Abbe Pierre Foundation, which works with the homeless, said this year that the figure is closer to 150,000.

The government fears the tents give people a reason to stay on the streets, expose them to sanitation problems and encourage them to live in groups — a problem because it is harder to persuade them to get help.

"The government's objective in this affair is simple: no more tents," said Benoist Apparu, communications official for the Ministry of Social Cohesion. "Not because we don't like tents, but because the problem with them is that we have enough trouble as it is getting people off the street, persuading them to move to a shelter or a rehabilitation center."

The Abbe Pierre Foundation shares some of those concerns. Patrick Doutreligne, an official with the Roman Catholic-affiliated charity, said there are as many negative effects as positive ones.

City officials say they don't disapprove of the tent initiative but want mediators to persuade homeless to move their tents away from apartment buildings, for example.

On Monday, Mayor Bertrand Delanoe sent a letter to the government pressing for 5,000 more homeless lodgings in the Paris region — not just overnight shelters.

Creuly and his friends have dreams of their own. Perched on the edge of the canal, talking about life, they have fantasies about being granted an abandoned building to fix up themselves.

"I realize they can't just come up with 1,000 new lodgings, just like that," Creuly said. "But are we supposed to believe anyone is really trying? I'm tired of all this talk."