B Y J E S S I C A M' S I H I D
“Move! Can you hear me? Move or I’ll call the police! You have until three to get up from my stoop and go away!”
As I slowly woke up, I heard the owner of the townhouse. I fell asleep on his stoop last night and he was staring at me with a disgusted look, his fingers ready to dial 911 on his brand new cell phone. How many times was I treated like this since I immigrated to France, hoping to get away from my dark past, to get a better future here? I stood up, gave him an awkward smile and quickly left him to his morning daily routine. My whole body ached. As I walked back towards Place Clichy, I started remembering where my misery began.
Only four months ago, I was living in Algeria with my parents and my two younger sisters. I was a normal girl, going to school, helping her parents and fighting with her siblings, until that strange day. My father asked me to meet one of his friends. He was way older than I. I was seventeen; he was in his thirties. The meeting was uncomfortable. They talked about me as if I was not in the room, only asking me to open my mouth in order for his friend to see my teeth. I was naïve and the next day I had forgotten all about this absurd meeting. A few months later, I turned eighteen, and my father abruptly commanded me to marry the man I had met few months ago, because it was good for the family’s interest because they would make money if I were to marry him. At this moment, my world collapsed. Me? Married? To a stranger who is almost twice my age? I had never even really kissed a boy before. After struggling, arguing and realizing that neither my mother nor my father would help me get out of this forced marriage, I ran away.
At the time, it seemed like the best option, the brightest one. A friend of mine helped me pay a one-way ticket on a boat to France, the country where everything seemed possible. I remember arriving in Paris, not knowing anyone, scared but determined that I would be able to get a job and happy that I had avoided this gloomy future. I soon realized, after spending all my savings on traveling, cheap hotels, food and water, that I had made the worst decision of my life. Without any other options, I lived on the street and became what people call “homeless.” Everyone looked at me in a despicable way. I have overheard more than once people calling me “a dirty Arab.” My dreams were broken. Paris was not the city with the bright future I expected but my worst nightmare. The unstable economy meant few job opportunities were on the market. People judged me fast, with my brown skin, my long and dirty hair, my unprofessional clothes and my non-existent resume. Bosses did not want to hire me. Even when I claimed that I went to high school, employers answered, “you are useless, you do not have a college degree.” How much of a college degree do you need when all you would do would be to clean the bathroom of a restaurant? There I am, four months after my arrival in Paris. A beggar. I steal food; I sleep in the street and sometimes in free shelters, when they have space, which is very rare. Lately, I have been sleeping on people’s stoops in what I assume to be a safe neighborhood.
Since my attempts to get a job have been unsuccessful, my desperation has led me to prostitute myself in exchange for money. I know the spots--Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes. Cars full of pathetic men drive through these empty woods at night in order to forget about their meaningless lives and, for €30, I satisfy them, making my life even more miserable than before. I ran away from my country to avoid being touched by a man I did not know, to end up in Paris, the city of love, pleasuring old and putrid men.
My pride, but most of all fear of my abusive father, prevents me from going back to my country. I have gone too far and have passed the point of no return. If I would come back to Algeria, he would deny me and reject me. I know my father. When I first arrived in Paris, I used all my savings to sleep in cheap hotels in neighbourhoods such as Barbès- Rochechouart or Belleville. After one week, all my savings were gone. I was terrified. My first instinct was to go to a church to ask for shelter. I went to seven different churches before I understood that the House of God was not giving free shelter and that the kindness of religious people was only a façade. I suppose life is not like Les Misérables.
P h o t o b y M o n i c a P e d o m o
I eventually found a women’s shelter. I was stupefied to see how dirty, smelly, and crowded it was. Women with children and babies were living there. The lady, who assigned me a bed, told me that I could only stay three days. During those days I lived through hell. Other women in the shelter were pitiless and desperate. They stole some of my belongings and there was no solidarity. Most of them were women who had also emigrated from their countries, and did not even speak French, unlike me. I did not know their past, but some of them clearly escaped from tyrannical husbands or companions. This one old woman had scars all over her legs. I assumed by the sadness in her eyes that she had been on the street for much longer than I. The showers were repugnant. There was rust everywhere, roaches and the water was cold. The third day I was in the shelter, two women started fighting over a tiny piece of soap. That is life as a homeless person; even a tiny piece of soap can represent the most important and precious thing you have. I understood better why all the homeless I had seen before, when I was younger, were usually carrying bags or a stroller filled with, God knows what. I was now one of them. I only had a backpack, but in it there were a few random things; a broken radio, key chains I had found and a box filled with used stamps.
After the shelter, I was forced to spend my first night on the streets of Paris. I tried parks in order to sleep on a bench, which is a bit more comfortable than the concrete. But parks always have a closing time and guards are very scrupulous, always noticing if someone is trying to spend the night. At least, I do not have to worry about the temperature. Right now it is August, but when winter comes, I do not even want to think about sleeping outside. I may have to retreat to the subway. Being a girl and a young one makes me an easy target. Malicious people can easily attack me. That is why I have to always be very careful when I find a place to sleep. I never can allow myself to sleep completely, because any noise or footsteps
P h o t o b y A m i k a M a g a r
wakes me up. I am always prepared for the worst that can happen. I figured that my best bet not to be attacked or raped during the night was to go in wealthy neighbourhoods and find a hidden place. So far the safest location is a quiet neighbourhood near Montmartre. There is a big street called Rue Caulaincourt, which leads to a nice avenue, called Avenue Junot and in this avenue, there is a tiny alley, with gorgeous townhouses. It is peaceful and no one has bothered me because most of the residents travel or use their house as a second residence. It has been a temporary solution, until this morning, when a snobby man kicked me awake.
Even though I am homeless I have a routine that allows me to survive in the streets. As soon as I am awake, my goal is to find food and water to get enough energy for the whole day. Depending on how much I made, if I decide to please some men the night before, I can buy a good amount of food right away. If I was not able to give myself away, because sometimes my emotions take over and I cannot inflict this on myself or I simply was not starving enough to think that it was my only option, I steal or beg. After I find a way to feed myself and drink, I usually go in search of a restroom. I try to clean myself as much as I can and luckily it is not a hard thing to do in Paris, because there are a lot of public restrooms in the streets. Unfortunately, women use these bathrooms as personal bedrooms to see their clients or junkies take them over to do drugs. I would give anything for a real shower with hot water. Cleaning myself out of a dirty sink is frustrating and degrading. After that, I either walk around in search of a job or I try shelters again to see if they have available. It is exhausting to sleep outside and it is scary.
I soon realized that surviving in the street was also surviving with myself. I do not read books anymore, or listen to music or talk with my friends. The loneliness is my new best friend and it has driven me crazy more than once. No one to talk to, to listen to, to understand me, is almost like isolation in prison. Even though I am a young girl, no stranger ever asked me what had happened to me? How did I end up living like this? Where am I from? People are afraid of the homeless. That is why I began digging in the garbage. On the surface, I search of treasures, books, magazines, and old clothes but really I just want to occupy my mind. It is actually amazing what one can find in the trash, especially trash around tourist attractions or wealthy neighborhoods. One day, I found a brand new watch. Another day I found a pair of old slippers. These “treasures” comfort me but do not reassure me. I do not know how I will get my life back on track.
At some point, since no one helps and acknowledges me, I started to think that I deserved this. I do blame my father, but even in my darkest moments, I miss him, because being alone is the worst thing for a human being. My life has no purpose. My goals are reduced to finding food, water and a place to sleep. I slowly turned into an animal surviving in this atrocious society where the modus operandi is “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t look, don’t help.”
Mine is only one of the stories of homelessness, but I am certainly not alone. The United Nations commission on human rights estimated a few years ago that about 100 million people worldwide are homeless. Many documentaries, articles and books have proven that there are enough resources in the world to end hunger, poverty and homelessness. Our economic system, however, prevents those resources from reaching the lower classes because it would require a redistribution of wealth that would negatively affect the wealthier classes. Those with money also have the power and in order to keep that power they only allow very little progress in balancing out the world’s resources. For example, it is not in the best interest of business to pay sweatshop workers more money, because their profit would decrease. Ironically, many underdeveloped nations have powerful like oil, diamonds, iron and gold. Yet access to and the profit from these resources are shared by a small percentage of the population.
In America, classes define where you belong on the social ladder. If one is born in a wealthy family, his or her life will always be easier than a person born in a lower class because they will have access to more resources—like education, healthcare and culture. Although there is more social mobility in the United States and even France than other underdeveloped countries, people still judge based on social rank. If one is not only from a low class but also part of a minority ethnicity, chances for equality are even slimmer.
One major step in solving poverty is to combat the misconception that lower class people do not work. In fact, they take on hard and labor intensive work that the upper classes would not want but need in order to make their wealth grow. The video about The Grand Army Starvation emphasizes that point. The poor workers on the railroad had subhuman living conditions, yet the wealth of the railroad tycoons depended on those people. This demonstrates that the wealthy needs the poor to stay poor in order to get richer.
One thing to always remember is that it is chance and circumstance that determines where you fall in the social ladder. Even the famous and wealthy actor, Morgan Freeman acknowledges this fact. He once said, “Was I always going to be here? No I was not. I was going to be homeless at one time, a taxi driver, truck driver, or any kind of job that would get me a crust of bread. You never know what’s going to happen.” ∞