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What you need to know about begging in Paris

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What you need to know about begging in Paris
Photo: AFP
14:32 CEST+02:00
The sheer number of people begging in Paris provokes many questions among visitors and locals alike. Why is begging synonymous with the French capital? How do we know if those asking for money are really in need? And is it wrong to hand over loose change?
As everyone who has been to Paris knows, begging in the French capital comes in many forms. 
 
Whether it's someone appealing to commuters on the Metro, or the more discreet appeal of the person holding up a cardboard sign asking for money for food (Pour manger s'il vous plait) on a street corner, it's impossible not to notice just how many people here are searching for a petite pièce.
 
From the limbless beggars crawling through the carriages on the Metro and the people who approach you as you sit outside of brasseries, to the families in bus shelters and those who play a song or write a poem in exchange for some small change, the sheer variety and amount of begging in Paris can be shocking for those unfamiliar with the city. And sometimes even for those who live here.  
 
Obviously begging is commonplace in most big global cities but why does it seem so synonymous with Paris?
 
With this in mind, here are some answers to common questions about begging in the French capital.
 
 
 
Is the begging situation getting worse in Paris?
 
According to people working in homeless charities in the French capital the answer is a resounding yes. 
 
"New populations such as Syrians are arriving and setting up refugee camps, and while this is seen more outside of Paris than in the capital, it affects the city as well," said Louis-Xavier Leca, Director of La Cloche, an organisation that promotes relationships between neighbourhood businesses, residents and the homeless living there.
 
"There have also been more and more French people ending up on the streets in recent years with rising unemployment. And there is a problem with the lack of local solidarity," he added.
 
"After my own experience spending time in Chile and West Africa, I think it can be worse to fall on hard times in Paris than in poorer countries. People tend to be more isolated here," Leca said.
 
Photo: AFP
 
Who are the beggars in Paris? 
 
Like in most cities, there isn't one specific "type" of person begging in Paris. Beggars can be men, women, young people and old, living on the street, in temporary housing, in a hotel, accommodation for homeless people or social housing.
 
They may or may not be benefiting from social allowances, may be looking for work or excluded from the jobs market. They might have always had difficulties or been fully "integrated in society" before this. They might have been begging consistently or sporadically for many years or just recently started.
 
In other words, just because someone asks you for money doesn't mean you can guess anything about their situation.
 
After all it was reported in March by the French press that one in four homeless people in France are employed
 
A man wearing a mask of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy begs on a Paris street. Photo: AFP
 
Director of Public Relations and Development at the Salvation Army in France, Samuel Coppens says that generally people begging in Paris tend to fall into four categories: people who are on very low incomes and struggling to make ends meet, addicts, or people from eastern Europe, who are sometimes seen using child slaves, or others who pose as Syrian refugees. 
 
"There's a feeling of sensitivity towards refugees because of the crisis in Syria," Coppens said. "But the people you see in the street claiming to be from Syria are usually either Romany gypsies or economic migrants. That's not to say these people aren't in real difficulty, but they aren't fleeing war zones." 
 
 
Has begging always been legal?
 
Begging was only made legal in France in 1994 under three conditions: that it isn't done in an aggressive way (and that includes not using a dangerous animal), that children aren't used to beg and if it isn't affecting public order.
 
In theory anyone guilty of breaching these rules can be fined €38. 
 
Despite this, throughout the years, there have been several cases of people being arrested for begging, particularly during the summer months, with local authorities arguing that it is necessary in order that tourists and locals can enjoy themselves without the risk of being hassled. 
 
 
How much does it cost to get a room for the night?
 
There are places called "foyers socials" in Paris where people on the streets can get a room for the night but they don't come cheaply.
 
"These rooms will still set someone back by €40-50 a night," Leca from La Cloche said.
 
Most homeless people in France are also eligible for around €150 in benefits from the French government each month and "some will opt to spend a third of this on a room for one night so that they can have at least one stress free night", Leca added. 
 
A gymnasium with beds for homeless people located under the Esplanade des Invalides. Photo: AFP
 
What do those begging generally spend the money on?
 
While it's not strictly necessary for homeless people in Paris to beg for money for food or even a room for the night because of the help available, inevitably they do.
 
Money from begging will also be spent on anything from basic necessities and books to drugs and alcohol. 
 
"Inevitably there are people who choose not to go to charities for their own reasons," Coppens from the Salvation Army said. The soup kitchens don't serve wine with their meals and Coppens says that alcohol, along with drug addiction, is behind some of the begging. 
 
However Leca from La Cloche stressed that there are less alcoholics living on the street than there in the rest of society.
 
"Perhaps the French are more sympathetic to people who want to buy themselves a can of beer or a bottle of wine because we're a nation that likes to drink but realistically drinking on the street isn't about being an alcoholic.
 
"It's often a way of keeping warm and of lightening the strain that comes with living on the streets," he said.
 
 
Is there any way of telling the real beggars from the "fake" ones?
 
Naturally there is some suspicion around whether beggars are linked to organised crime. 
 
But Leca from La Cloche says that "while some people begging are linked to the mafia, this is the minority. In reality, 70-80 percent of people are begging for themselves." 
 
Unfortunately there's no real way of being sure about this. "One small clue could be if you notice that people are spending all night somewhere and maybe have a mattress and bedding with them," he added.
 
Although it's important to remember that this isn't a full-proof method, with some genuine homeless people moving on for the night to a room or a safer area. 
 
 
So what help is available already?
 
People's choice of whether or not to give to someone begging inevitably comes down to a multitude of factors, not least of all your own principles, it's natural to find yourself wondering whether there might be a more efficient way to help out.
 
There are a lot of charities in Paris that run daily soup kitchens at lunch and dinner times, where people can go no questions asked, for a hot meal, as well as to find basic necessities. 
 
A volunteer of the French charitable organisation Les Restos du Coeur. Photo: AFP
 
Just one of the services provided by the Restos du Coeur charity is preparing and distributing proper meals for the homeless at lunch and dinnertime. From 2015-16 the charity distributed 132.5 million meals.
 
The Salvation Army also provides meals and has teams of volunteers that drive around Paris in the morning to see if there is anyone who might be hungry. 
 
Samusocial is another charity dedicated to the homeless, with their teams approaching homeless people on the street to offer them a room for the night and to see if they need any other assistance. 
 
However while there are places that provide free rooms for the night, as is the case in most cities, there are many who would rather sleep on the streets as a result of the violence commonly found there. 
 
If you'd like to donate money to charities dedicated to helping the homeless in Paris, in addition to charities mentioned above, the following NGOs also work in this field: AURORE, Croix Rouge, Le Foyer de Grenelle, Les Petits Frères des Pauvres, Secours Populaire, La Petite Rockette and Secours Catholique
 
Advice on giving
 
While some are of the opinion that if they've decided to give their money to someone it's no longer their business what it's spent on, others want to be sure that the money is being put towards food or a room for the night.
 
If you fall into the second camp, it might be better to give to an organised charity. 
 
Advice from charities seems pretty consistent on this issue. While they recommend people give money to charities which can use their resources to benefit people in the long-term, they also endorse the act of giving to people in the street...as long as you're happy to do so. 
 
"I wouldn't judge people who choose to give their money to someone in the street. That's an act of giving, a free act and a wonderful one," Coppens told The Local. 
 
Photo: AFP
 
"I would say that we are in a position to help people get back on their feet, we can step in and use our network to improve their situation," he added. 
 
While Leca from La Cloche said: "Giving to a charity probably means that the money will be better managed but you also have to think of all the administration costs that have to be paid in the running of an organisation."  
 
"I think the most useful thing people can do if someone is asking them for money is to give the person begging a chance to provide a service, for example say that you're lost so then you have a chance to thank them with a bit of change."
 
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