Some people always give beggars change, some never do. And some people, especially visitors to Paris who see the beggars in the streets and on the metro with “J’ai faim” signs, aren’t sure whether they want to hand over their change or not.
I myself was one of them. A few years ago, sick of feeling guilty when I didn’t give my loose change to a beggar, but mad that people were still begging on the streets considering how much taxes I pay for the French social services, I started asking questions. Aren’t there places where these people can go? Aren’t there places where they can eat? I wasn’t really sure, so I decided to see for myself by volunteering for one of the soup kitchens, the Restos du Coeur.
The Restos du Coeur have three major programs to feed those who are hungry in Paris. There are the Restos du Coeur food distribution centers, where individuals and families who can prove they are low income go to receive their food baskets, filled with all of the ingredients for making a balanced, healthy meal at home, as well as basic cooking supplies (like butter, flour, and sugar) and personal hygeine products. There are special products for those with babies, as well.
Then there are the outdoor soup kitchens, set up on tables in squares around Paris every day for lunch and dinner, with freshly-made food that includes, at any given meal: bread, hot main dish of meat or fish, a side dish of vegetables or pasta, and a packaged dessert like yogurt, pudding or sometimes even pastries for special occasions. There is a hot soup table, a cereal table with hot and cold milk, a coffee stand, and a stand distributing books, blankets, and other items that may be needed like toiletry kits. None of the food is “leftovers” as some people might imagine, or “donations” from restaurants. All of it is purchased and prepared in the Restos du Coeur kitchens every day. Anyone can come to these soup kitchens, no ID is required, no questions asked.
The third program, run by the more experienced volunteers, entails driving around Paris in the Restso du Coeur vans looking for those in need who don’t come to the soup kitchens. The bring them their meals and a hot cup of coffee, leaving it next to them if they’re sleeping or passed out, talking to them if they’re in a talking mood. The Croix Rouge and Secours Catholique also send out vans that scour the city in the middle of the night looking for the hungry people who need food.
Back at the Restos du Coeur, I was assigned to the Sunday evening shift at one of the outdoor soup kitchens, at a square between the Observatoire de Paris and Metro St Jacques. The one where I volunteered was quite sociable. Many of the people who came to the soup kitchen had been coming long enough to know each other as well as all of the volunteers. I would estimate half of them were French, 25-45 years old, who could easily blend in with the average Parisian without loking “homeless”. Another 25% were foreigners, mostly from Eastern Europe, and new to Paris. About 10% were elderly people who lived nearby and came for the food because even though they weren’t homeless, they were either to too poor to cook or to old to manage on their own. Another 10% were young and often wearing nice sneakers and listening to music on iPods. I suspect they were either backpackers or locals who were taking advantage of a free meal. Only about 5% of the people who came to my soup kitchen fit the public’s stereotype of the “typical homeless person”, pushing all of their belongings in a shopping cart, either not talking to anyone or ranting at everyone, most likely suffering from some form of mental illness.
They were among the most polite, they got their food and left without causing trouble. Some of the regulars would get into fights over politics (I was a volunteer when Sarkozy was elected), and I had the feeling many of them were homeless because they were anarchists or talented manipulators of the system and it suited their anti-establishment self image to live off the grid. There were even a few who would grumble about the “étrangères” who came to the soup kitchen, saying that Coluche (the comedian who founded the charity) would be turning in his grave if he knew that non-French people were eating at the Restos du Coeur. It didn’t strike them as ironic for me to point out that an “étrangère” was the one serving them their food (and that my annual donations were also helping to pay for it).
Sometimes I found it hard to deal with the emotional toll of the work. Most of the people who came to the Restos du Coeur treated the volunteers with kindness and appreciation, but there were always a few bad apples who were arrogant or outright rude. And you never knew which to expect, so it was a bit like walking on eggshells. When giving out the desserts one night, we ran out of the chocolate mousse and only had plain yogurt left, which made quite a few of them none too happy. I resisted the urge to translate “Beggars can’t be choosers” and learned not to let those at the front of the line talk me into giving them two at a time so that we wouldn’t run out.
What really made it a positive experience for me were the other volunteers. If you think that all Parisians are self-centered, cynical and condescending, you should spend time volunteering. Some of the volunteers had been there for many years, some were new like myself. But everyone was so friendly, welcoming, and really showed the spirit of charity work. Never once did I hear “That’s not my job” at the soup kitchen. We all did everything, filled in where needed, and made efforts to be respectful not only of each other but also of the people who came to the soup kitchen to eat. There was no sense of righteousness or anyone patting themselves on the back. The volunteers who had the most experience were “in charge”, but they tended to be the first on site, the last to go, and the most willing to do the dirty work. I applaud their dedication and their staying power, and was really sad when my erratic work schedule finally made it impossible to continue volunteering (you have to commit to a specific time period for the long term, there are no “drop-in” volunteers).
My time there also answered some of the questions I had about all of the beggars in Paris with signs saying that they need money for food. At the end of every single one of my shifts there was leftover food. Sometimes we would give away entire containers of milk, vacuum packed trays of meat and potato dishes, and as much bread as anyone could carry. We would even fill empty water bottles with soup so that we wouldn’t have to throw it out. Whenever I made the bad decision to go to my shift on an empty stomach, it killed me to watch the leftovers go to waste (it would have been very bad form for me to take it). I once asked one of the veteran volunteers why there are still so many people in Paris begging for money if they can eat for free, either at our soup kitchen or at any of the others around Paris, like at the American Cathedral.
“Sometimes they don’t know about it. I try and carry little slips of paper with the addresses and schedules of the soup kitchens and hand them out. Sometimes they just don’t need food.” I think this is what makes most people hesitate to give their money, because they fear it will be used to buy drugs or alcohol. And that’s sometimes true. I will occasionally be behind someone at the supermarket who is buying a bottle of cheap wine with a huge bag of centimes. They don’t serve wine at the Restos du Coeur, after all. But there are many other reasons why people won’t accept free food.
Once a woman who looked clean and properly dressed, wearing a large wooden cross around her neck,asked me for change as I passed her in the street walking my dogs. I apologized and said I didn’t have anything on me but a plastic bag for cleaning up the dogs’ business, and she huffed at me. As I came back around to the same spot at the end of my walk, she yelled something rude in my direction. I tried to be helpful by asking if she knew there was a Restos du Coeur a few blocks down the street, and she replied something along the lines of “That’s merde, I don’t eat merde!” I had a similar response twelve years ago when I worked at a muffin shop at St-Germain-des-Près. here was a homeless man always camped out at the metro entrance asking for money. I tried to give him my bag of leftover muffins (which we would take home at the end of the shift instead of throwing them out), and he screamed at me, “I’m not going to eat that American merde!”
I still prefer to give my money to the organizations who can help feed and shelter the homeless rather than handing out cash on the street. But that’s a personal decision, and I’m not here to tell anyone else what to do with their money. But I do think it’s important that when you do give money, it’s because you want to and feel good about it, not because you’re being bullied or manipulated. Most of the beggars on the streets of Paris are perfectly harmless and bother no one. And, at least in the metro cars, I prefer the quick speech and walk through to the bad music that’s often blared out of amplifiers by the less talented musicians. Only once was I attacked for not giving someone money.
Ten years ago I was was returning home on the metro after having my impacted wisdom teeth removed, when an agitated young guy with bloodshot eyes (high as a kite) waved his hand in front of my face after making the “please give me your loose change” speech. I made the mistake of asking him in my slurred French to leave me alone (my street smarts must have gone with the teeth), and he responded by spitting in my face and then kicking me across the aisle. Luckily nothing like this has happened since (I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut), and I’ve never heard of anyone else having similar experiences.
The usual story is that of pickpockets and scammers preying on tourists. I always alert my clients to the “Is this your ring?” con, and tell them to say “Non” whenever someone (and it’s usually the Roma, or Gypsy women, aka Gens de Voyage in French) carrying around little signs asks them “Do you speak English?” These people just want your money, and they can get quite aggressive if you look like you’re even thinking of considering it. Like any big city, Paris has its fair share of beggars, homeless drunks passed out in the metro, and illegal street entrepreneurs trying to sell you junky Eiffel Tower keychains and postcards. It’s up to you whether you want to give them your money or not. But don’t believe for a minute that anyone in Paris dies of hunger because they can’t pay for food.
If you really want to make a difference to the lives of those who are in need, consider donating your time or money to reputable French charities and volunteer organizations.
NOTE: Last year, the 1660 volunteers of the Restos du Coeur in Paris served almost four million meals to over 22,000 people in need.