In Paris, refugee crisis puts new strain on city's homelessness problem

Migrants, as they wait for their asylum applications to be processed, are increasingly ending up on the streets of the French capital, adding to the tens of thousands already there.

Police clear out migrants and refugees from Avenue de Flandre in Paris on Sept. 20. Despite the official efforts to remove the camp, migrants returned to the street within a week.

The wind whips up the edges of multicolored tents butted up against each other on a stretch of Paris’s Avenue de Flandre, home to several hundred refugees and migrants from Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Afghanistan since the summer. Mustafa Mohamed Addouw, who occupies one of them, is confronting a challenge familiar to some 28,800 Parisians: not having a proper home.

“At home in Somalia it’s 95 degrees, here it’s freezing, especially at night,” says the young man, who has been living on the street for five days. Mr. Addouw has applied for asylum in France, but with his fingerprints already registered in Norway – possibly determining his ultimate destination – he doesn’t know what his future holds. “If my request gets accepted, I’ll stay here.… If not, maybe I will live here like the homeless people. I don’t know. Life on the street is very hard.”

Addouw joins a growing number of migrants who, as they wait for their asylum requests to go through, find themselves on the streets of the French capital, adding to an already serious homelessness problem in Paris.

The city is moving ahead with a variety of programs to address the issue – particularly the lack of housing that is at the root of the problem. But it is likely to experience additional strain amid plans to close the 10,000-strong migrant camp in nearby Calais – potentially adding thousands to the city's homeless population.

“We need a permanent solution because as it stands, there are very few centers that can handle the demands,” says Antoine Pecoud, a sociology professor who teaches international migration at Sciences Po. “The market is saturated and so people find themselves in the street.”

The homelessness problem

Paris’s struggle with homelessness – like that of most major world capitals – is far from new. The city has been dealing with growing homelessness for decades, but it reached new heights when Europe’s financial crisis hit in 2008. What began as a phenomenon affecting those who were isolated or couldn’t find work has morphed into a more widespread problem, affecting single-parent families, single men, and young people.

While the numbers ebb and flow, local NGOs estimate that of the nearly 30,000 people without permanent homes, there are around 2,000 who live around the clock on the streets of Paris. The number of people without permanent housing in Paris increased by 84 percent from 2001 and 2012, according to national statistics bureau INSEE.

“Salaries have not progressed at the same rate as rental prices, and more people are working on temporary or part-time contracts, which hasn’t helped the situation.” says Eric Constantin, the regional director for Ile-de-France at the nongovernmental organization Fondation Abbé Pierre.

The city has since worked to make housing in Paris a priority. It has vowed to create 7,000 social housing units each year, including turning a former Renault garage and abandoned post office into apartments for families. By 2020, it hopes to transform 1,000 unused chambre de bonnes – former maid’s quarters that often act as miniature apartments – into viable living quarters.

And in a yearly contest that allows Parisians to send in their ideas for how the city should spend 5 percent of its budget, a project to provide more adequate housing won out over all others. So while many say there is still not enough housing to go around, the city is rising to the occasion.

“The state still isn’t putting enough money into dealing with the problem, but at least there is a desire to fix it here in Paris,” says Christophe Louis, Director of Les Enfants du Canal, an NGO that works with diverse homeless populations around the French capital.

Overloaded system

Despite criticism last year within France’s homeless community that the city was putting more money and effort into tackling the migrant crisis than homelessness, Mr. Constantin says it’s dangerous to conflate the two issues.

“People need to stop saying that the migrant problem is making things worse for homeless people,” says Mr. Constantin. “The lack of housing was definitely a problem before.”

Nonetheless, the influx of migrants in France, and especially in Paris, has put pressure on an already strained emergency housing mechanism.

In France, asylum seekers can seek temporary housing for as long as it takes for their request to be processed at one of the many CADA center (centre d’accueil pour demandeurs d’asile). If there’s no room at the CADAs, asylum seekers may end up in a CHU (centre d’hébergement) – a place for anyone seeking emergency housing, migrant or otherwise.

“Foreigners who end up in the street have the same rights as any other homeless person in France, in that they have the right to emergency housing,” says Matthieu Tardis, a migration specialist at the Paris-based IFRI think tank.

But neither the CADA nor the CHU can handle the current number of demands. EU border agency Frontex says 1.8 million people entered Europe’s borders in 2015 – of that number, there were more than 80,000 people who applied for asylum in France, and just over 19,000 who were accepted. The average processing time is 205 days, according to NGO France Terre d’Asile. For those waiting to hear back about their applications, the idle time can be excruciating.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” says Rachid, a young man from Sudan who has been living in a Paris CHU for a month while waiting to hear about his asylum request. “I don’t know how long I can stay in the center. I have no information. I will just wait and see if I stay in France or move to another place.”

'Our responsibility'

To try to take some of the pressure off Paris’s emergency housing centers, a long-awaited humanitarian camp is set to open in Paris at the end of October. The first of its kind in a European urban center, it will welcome 400 men, with a second center to accommodate 500 women and children set to open by the end of the year.

But while Mayor Anne Hidalgo has been heralded for the initiative, the camp will act as more of a processing center than housing structure; stays will range from just five to 10 days. And the potential shutdown of the Calais by the end of this year could put Paris at risk of even further saturation, with migrants in competition for housing with those already here.

It’s a moment when migration and homelessness will undoubtedly collide, and NGOs are preparing themselves for the influx.

“Migrants have a very specific administrative status and are handled differently than the average homeless person in France,” says Mr. Louis. “But if their asylum requests are rejected and they find themselves without anywhere to live, they become our responsibility. That’s when we step in.”

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