In fight to help the homeless, French take to tents

Well-off Parisians have taken up residence alongside the homeless in a bid to raise awareness of their plight.

The spirit of Don Quixote has surfaced, and partly triumphed, in a band of media-savvy Parisians who captured the imagination of France by tilting at the windmills of homelessness and French bureaucracy.

For a month, the "Children of Don Quixote" enlisted well-fed, well-off Parisians to leave their salons and sleep in 300 bright red tents on the cobblestones with the homeless, in a show of solidarity.

Within weeks, not only had similar "Quixote cities" sprung up in Marseilles, Lyon, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, and Toulouse, but the French government increased funds to $92 million from $11 million, allowing shelters to stay open 24 hours – and on Monday earmarked $46 million more to place 27,000 persons. Next month, lawmakers will debate a law that makes housing a legal right – something President Jacques Chirac, under pressure from the Quixote media coverage, proposed in his New Year address.

Not bad, say the Quixotes, for an idea that started with €20, a camera, and four friends.

Whether such promises will survive the spring elections is unclear. Nevertheless, through a movement perhaps unseen before in Europe, Quixote gave the problem a new profile, creating a "radical change" in policy, says Augustin Legrand, whose family of comedic actors was the central in the group's founding.

"It's become something special; I've not seen anything like it in Europe," says Harold, a Roman Catholic social worker who Wednesday drove from Bonn, Germany, to see what all the fuss was about. "In Germany, homeless complain they are treated badly, there's hostility toward them. And no one talks about it. In France, there's just indifference. But at least that has allowed the problem to be raised in public."

Jean-Baptiste Legrand, a film producer and president of Quixote, says that, "No one who is human really likes this problem. Everyone talks about it a little bit, but no one really speaks loudly.... We just felt like in this country we shouldn't leave people in the street."

Emmaus, an international homeless advocacy group, this week called Quixote's action "significant."

The plight of the homeless, known in France as "SDF," or "sans domicile fixes," is not yet regarded as an acute problem. An official 2001 study suggests 89,000 homeless people.

But the Abbe Pierre Foundation claims that the number is now twice that. With new immigrants and a restless North African population in the suburbs, the problem is growing. Paris has many street dwellers.

The Quixote "city" looks like a Christo installation – red nylon pup tents lined single file along a grayish canal built by Napoleon in 1825 to bring clean water into the city.

Canal St. Martin wends through bohemian clubs and bourgeoisie apartments, making the tents a clear statement.

In fact, the location in a "bo-bo" neighborhood is part of the Quixote strategy to play to the center of French politics, rather than to try to shout about the issue from the extreme left, where it has been most at home.

Tents are numbered. Some are now painted or marked with identifying elements. Nabila, who lives in tent No. 39, has "handicapped" marked on her tent.

She stays across from tent No. 40, which houses fellow Tunisian Amara Sahli, a middle-aged man whose parents left him in Paris as a young boy. "If I can find a place to live, things might get better," he offers.

Yet with success and promises under their belt, the Quixotes face new tensions. The tents are an embarrassment, and the government wants them gone. Quixote founder Augustin Legrand last week promised the SDF would stay until all homeless are settled, but that may not be viable.

And even Mr. Legrand is now hinting that the tents should be moved.

Housing activists who joined Quixote's parade now accuse the group of being a grandstanding media sellout.

Legrand himself hasn't stayed, flying this week to South Africa for an acting job.

Many blue-collar French complain that President Chirac's promises for the homeless come at their expense. Some 1.4 million low-wage workers have waited for years on lists for low-cost housing. It is unfair, they say, to appropriate such homes because a lobby group made a successful stink.

At 86 Café, a small, smoky standup joint near the canal, and unofficial headquarters for Quixote, talk is sharper and the atmosphere tenser, locals note. Quixote president Jean-Baptiste Legrand, tall with a scraggly beard and a cellphone permanently plastered to his ear, looks a bit haggard.

A street artist who calls herself "Sapphram" inches into the claque around him, and puts her face squarely into his.

"I didn't stay here since Nov. 28 to get 300 houses and for things to be forgotten. You and your family have not shared with us your decision to sell out," she charges. "You have betrayed us."

Legrand retorts: "You have been a housing activist 20 years and you got nothing. We've done this three months, and we've got something!"

An 86 Café denizen tells reporters, "Many of us don't have a decent house. Now we are going to wait longer, and everything changes because someone made a big noise? That's causing anger, too."

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