Down but not out in Paris: French homeless man becomes social media sensation

A French homeless man has taken Twitter by storm, chalking up nearly 20,000 followers with his account of life on the mean streets of Paris.

Down but not out in Paris: French homeless man becomes social media sensation
Photo: AFP
Christian Page was the head waiter in a ritzy restaurant in the posh Madeleine district of the French capital before becoming homeless after a divorce that tipped him into depression.
The 45-year-old, born in the western Paris suburb of Versailles, the former seat of French kings, recalls serving the likes of former Paris Saint-Germain striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and tennis champion Rafael Nadal.
But one day, he found he “couldn't smile at people anymore” and handed in his notice.
Struggling to live on 545 euros ($650) a month in benefit payments, he soon found himself unable to pay rent and was evicted in April 2015.
Nowadays, home is the street, where armed with a old smartphone with a cracked screen he punches out tweets slamming politicians' empty promises and appealing for help for those without a roof over their heads.
His phone has also been a stick to call out the authorities over anti-vagrancy measures.
Photo: AFP
On Christmas Day, he tweeted a picture of the metal barriers erected by the city around a warm air vent in northeast Paris used by some homeless people to keep warm.
The message was shared over 2,000 times, prompting the authorities to remove the grilles — a small victory for the homeless that made the front pages, boosting Page's Twitter following to over 19,500 and landing him with a list of interview requests.
His first social media coup dates back over a year, when he tweeted about being woken at dawn by a municipal cleaning worker who hosed him with cold water.
Despite having only six Twitter followers at the time his message came to the attention of Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who apologised and provided him with a new sleeping bag.
“Twitter is not a weapon, but it's powerful,” the self-described “vagrant 2.0” who dresses rocker-style in head-to-toe black with a ponytail and red bandana, said in an interview with AFP on a bench in northeast Paris.
'Begging 2.0'
Apart from highlighting conditions on the street Page also uses Twitter to request a helping hand, preferring “begging 2.0” to what he calls the “despondency” of traditional panhandling.
And it works.
Over Christmas and New Year, a generous benefactor left him the keys to his Paris apartment, and he has also received donations of clothes and shoes, which he shares with others.
Above all, he said, tweeting gives him “the feeling of existing.”
“In the morning, I get a 'Hello Christian', and in the evening a 'Goodnight'. It sounds silly but these little messages move me,” said the soft-spoken father of a 15-year-old son, whose ruddy face testifies to the ravages of the cold.
Photo: AFP
Despite his growing fame, Page, who has kept a phone contract with internet access, has no ambition of becoming a spokesman for France's estimated 143,000 homeless.
“I'm glad if my messages find an audience. It might mean a sandwich for a homeless person at the other end of France,” said Page, who is scathing of the work of charities, calling them “supermarkets of misery” which he says fail to do enough for the homeless.
On a personal level, he is optimistic about getting off the street.
“Anything can happen. With my current run of luck, I should play the lottery!”


In numbers: How the homeless population of Paris is growing

The number of people sleeping rough on the streets of Paris is on the rise, according to the second ever homelessness census to take place in the French capital. This is a look at the most important figures from the report.

In numbers: How the homeless population of Paris is growing
A homeless man sits in a street of Paris on March 3, 2019. Photo: AFP
At the beginning of February an army of some 2,000 volunteers took to the streets of Paris to count the number of homeless people in the city for the project known as Nuit de la Solidarité (Night of Solidarity), which was launched last year. 
They went street by street counting the number of people huddled in sleeping bags in doorways, car parks, train stations, gardens and woods, as well as those camped out in tents. 
It is hoped that having this information will help the city better distribute its services. 
Like last year, homeless people were also surveyed about their housing and health problems, collecting data that Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo had said she hoped would allow authorities to design better policies to help those on the streets.
Here's a look at what the census revealed — in numbers. 

(Photo: AFP)

The number of homeless people sleeping rough on the streets of Paris, according to the 2019 census. 
That's the number of how many more people were sleeping rough in February 2019 compared to the same month in 2018. 
The percentage increase in homelessness in Paris in just one year from February 2018 – February 2019. 
Out of the total number sleeping on the street, some 2,232 were found to be sleeping on the streets of the French capital, while 751 people were found sleeping in locations run by the Town Hall and partner associations. Some 639 people were found sleeping in the capital's parks, woods and gardens.
These two numbers represent the age bracket of the majority of people living on the streets of Paris — men aged 40-54-years old, according to the report. 
Over half of them have been homeless for a year or more and when they were asked how they ended up on the street 35 percent of them said they arrived in Paris without housing, 23 percent mention a “life crisis” such as unemployment, illness or prison.
Nearly half of them said they have no financial resources (46 percent), 23 percent live on begging and 18 percent on social benefits.
A total of 14 percent are looking for work and while 11 percent said they do not need anything, the majority asked for priority housing, help in administrative procedures, a hot meal, clothes and a place to take a shower.
18th and 19th
Of course the homeless population of Paris is not evenly spread out. The 18th and 19th arrondissements have seen their number of street-sleepers grow by 70% and 50% over the last year, in the main due to migrant camps.
The 10th arrondissement has the lowest number of homeless people.
Photo: AFP
Today women make up 12 percent of the total homeless population in Paris, with 30 percent aged between 25 and 39, 18 percent between 55 and 70 and 2 percent over 70-years-old. 
And the fear is that the number of women sleeping rough in the French capital could be even higher, according to some associations.
“There are many women who do not dare to be in visible places and who hide to avoid any violence that might be inflicted on them,” said Nicolas Hue from homeless charity Aurore.

The number of new accommodation spots Paris has said it is committed to opening in 2019. 
“Our priority is helping women living on the street,” said Dominique Versini from City Hall, adding that the plan is to open a new accommodation center with 263 places and a night stop in the town halls of each arrondissement.
Two thirds
However there is a worry that this will not be enough to stem the problem, with two-thirds of the homeless, saying that they do not call SAMU — a charity that helps the homeless — because either the line is too busy or they have previously had bad experiences in emergency shelters.
So, why is the figure on the rise?
According to people working in homeless charities in the French capital the situation is getting worse.
“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 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,” Louis-Xavier Leca, Director of La Cloche, an organisation that promotes relationships between neighbourhood businesses, residents and the homeless living there, told The Local previously. 
“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,” he added.