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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le bois où meurent les sans-abri

by Ludovic Tomas

The woods where the homeless die

Translated Wednesday 10 December 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

Marginalization. Even before the first day of winter, the death toll has begun. In one month, three people have been found dead in the Bois de Vincennes. Eye-witness report.

“Fed up with journalists!” When temperatures plummet, camera lenses focus on the homeless. Following the discovery of a third dead body in the Bois de Vincennes, in the 12th arrondissement of Paris – the fourth in a month in the Paris region – the authorities, the media and the associations act, react, and ring the alarum bell. This is a phenomenon which Régeo cannot accept. Just before Régeo paid his respects in front of the ramshackle tent where his friend, Francis, was found dead in the Bois de Vincennes, he told two journalists who had come to interview him where to get off.

“I’ve been here for five years, and every winter before the holidays they come and have us talk in front of the cameras. That serves no purpose, that hasn’t helped me out a bit,” he said angrily. Régeo is one the 150 to 200 people who have chosen to live in the woods. Aggravated by what he considers to be “the competition among the associations,” he now would like to speak to the political authorities. “Since they pretend to listen to us, all we need to do is to revolt, like the young people in the working class suburbs,” Régeo suggested.

“They stole my only pair of shoes.”

Régeo chose the Bois de Vincennes because “it’s hard to set up your tent on the sidewalks of Paris.” Away from the main paths, dozens of tents and shelters have sprung up amid the vegetation. Sometimes they are fenced in with branches or wire, as if to protect them from the curious. Régeo has thrown up a shack named “the house of happiness.” The following words are tacked onto the door: “To be rich is to know how to be happy with what you’ve got.” A Swiss flag flies at the entrance to the “property.” “I put it up when Johnny [Halliday, a French rock star] asked for Swiss citizenship [in fact, it was Belgian citizenship – the editors] in case he might come and see me,” Régeo said ironically. He has three “neighbors” and a cat.

Like many of his comrades in misfortune, he has given up on municipal shelters. The reasons are well-known: the lack of hygiene, the stealing, noise, violence and the fact that people are put out on the street at the first light of dawn. “Once, I called 115. They took me to the Nanterre shelter. A former prison! Someone stole my only pair of shoes. That didn’t make a bit of difference to them. They threw me out at 7 a.m., barefoot,” Régeo stated.

Unemployment, unpaid rent, expulsion.

Régeo’s story is, unfortunately, typical. “I found myself unemployed and I couldn’t pay my rent any more. I was thrown out of my lodgings. Before ending up in the streets, I knocked on a lot of doors, but I hadn’t yet fallen low enough to qualify for help.” Today, if he were offered “a mobile home or a trailer on a piece of land,” Régeo would immediately accept, which contradicts the stereotype of the homeless who have supposedly have chosen to live on the fringes of society.

Régeo goes shopping with his wheeled shopping basket in the stores in Charenton-le-Pont, just southeast of Paris, a few hundred yards from his den. “I pay for my bit of meat with the RMI [the minimum benefit paid to those who have no other source of income]. Sometimes the trip to the streets leaves him with a bitter taste in his mouth. “The shopkeepers know where we come from and they don’t like us.” As he left a bar where he had a cup of coffee, Régéo heard one of the customers blurt out: “Vagabonds are just like Arabs, we ought to kill them all.”

Racism, discrimination and stigmatization.

Another time, wrongly accused of shoplifting, he stripped down to his underwear in the manager’s office. “They said they were sorry but it was too late, the little old ladies who saw the rent-a-cops accuse me of stealing had already left.” Racism, discrimination and stigmatization seem to be more unbearable to Régeo than the degrees below freezing.

Although they say they have enough blankets, Régeo and the other homeless sometimes think of the worst. “He was the second one that they found dead, and he surely wasn’t the last.” In point of fact, a few hours later the death of a third homeless man was announced. Just in one woods, the Bois de Vincennes.

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