Migrants, homeless seek shelter in sizzling France

Published June 29, 2019, 12:17 AM

by Ellalyn De Vera & Richa Noriega

By Agence France-Presse

“My tent is unbearably hot from about 6:00 am. I have to come here to keep cool,” Ahmed Yusuf said.

The 35-year-old Somali is one of hundreds of people who turned up at the emergency drop-in centers opened around France for migrants and homeless people as temperatures soar.

In France's second city Marseille, a shower truck has been making daily stops (AFP)
In France’s second city Marseille, a shower truck has been making daily stops (AFP)

At Porte de la Chapelle in northern Paris, where between 700 and 1,200 migrants live in makeshift camps, one such center offers showers, toilets, coffee and a place to shelter from the heatwave smothering France and much of Europe.

“We’re lucky to have this building. It’s cool and airy,” said Marie Cougoureux from the Salvation Army charity that runs the center.

“I’ve managed to negotiate a 200-liter (53-gallon) water tank and we’ve received 1,000 water bottles from Paris city hall,” she told AFP.

Inside, dozens of migrants snooze on sofas and check their mobile phones, as a gentle breeze wafts through the room.

“In Sudan, I was used to the heat, but it’s different here in France,” said Mustapha, 26, as he waited to fill up his water bottle.

“We’re always outside so we can’t really protect ourselves.”

In April, the mayors of 13 French cities, including Paris’s Anne Hidalgo, demanded more space in the country’s “congested” migrant shelters, in a joint letter to France’s interior and housing ministers.

– Tempers flare –

In the eastern city of Lyon, two sports halls — each equipped with two large air-conditioned Red Cross tents — have offered a welcome respite to a string of homeless people and migrants, among them pregnant women.

And in France’s second city Marseille, a shower truck has been making daily stops.

But plans to open centers elsewhere in France have come up against resistance.

In Montauban, near the southern city of Toulouse, tempers flared over plans to open a new homeless center on Thursday, ahead of a scorching weekend with the mercury set to hit 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit).

Mayor Brigitte Bareges had objected, claiming the town was “perfectly ready for the heatwave and to protect its people”, denouncing interference from the “Welcome Montauriol” charity which wants to provide food and showers to between 50 and 80 people each day.

The move sparked a backlash from charity groups and from Health Minister Agnes Buzyn, who wrote on Twitter that she was “dumbfounded”.

But the mayor’s opposition was ultimately overruled by the department’s top official, Pierre Besnard.

“We need to get these people off the streets. There’s a heatwave and we must have a sense of humanity,” he said.

– Shower hours –

Back at the center in Paris, pressure was building over the “constant stream of people” coming for shelter, forcing the volunteers to close its 12 showers earlier this week.

“We couldn’t continue,” Cougoureux said.

“We decided to regulate the showers and allow 100 people until 1:00 pm, then 50 people later in the afternoon. During the heatwave, we’ll extend our opening hours.”

For charities, the extra measures are only a temporary solution to France’s homelessness problem.

Heatwave or not, “people die in the streets all year round”, said Cecila Rocca, a coordinator for the Paris-based association The Dead of the Streets.