VALENCE — "My name is Julio," a young man says to introduce himself. His two friends laugh. "It's not true," they say. "He's called Antony, like everybody else." Julio-Antony wears an engaging smile and a smart outfit, as if we were going for a drink in a trendy cafe here in Valence, in southeastern France. Julio-Antony would like to be a bodyguard. Or a sports coach. He hasn't made up his mind yet.
His two friends are jostling next to a car, trying to catch a bit of the engine's warmth. "You damn homeless," Julio-Antony says. The three of them met on the streets, which is where they live, even though they don't look like it. They put a lot of effort into hiding it.
When he found himself on the streets, Julio-Antony thought to himself, "Man, already?" He had seen homeless people before, "mostly on TV, very filthy ones who drank." He thought it could only happen to old people, or to "those who've failed, even salesmen," one of his companions explains. "Life hasn't even started for us, and we're already in this situation." They're 20 years old. "What do we do now?" asks Julio-Antony.
They are unfortunately not alone. From the city of Rochefort on the southwestern coast to Laon in the Aisne region, social workers are describing a growing vulnerable population in similar ways. They're clean, nice, often invisible — and hopelessly lost. "Kids who sometimes just fall onto the streets," a Paris caseworker says. The other day, in a homeless center, one of them asked him "where the Nutella was for breakfast."
In the northern Aisne region, for example, calls to the humanitarian emergency service SAMU shot from 835 to 1,233 in 2013. Most of the callers were from this frighteningly new demographic, young adults aged between 18 and 25.
In the Paris area, the 18-to-25 set represents 13% of emergency calls, twice as much as in 2007. For a long time, the image of a laid off executive finding himself homeless was the symbol of a collapsing society. Then there was the working poor who slept in their cars. "Take a close look at these youths," says Eric Pliez, SAMU chief for Paris. "Tomorrow, their faces will be the face of our time."
In the Paris metro — Photo: stephane333
At a bus shelter around Nyons, a small city near Valence, a boy shouts, "September 11. Down!" It's his dog. Christopher is waiting for the bus to go to his mom's, like most weekends. "Do you think she'll take you back?" asks another boy, also with a dog. For months, Christopher has waited for a text message on his phone, one that would read, "Come back. Mom."
The bus doesn't come. Christopher decides to walk instead. Sixteen kilometers later, his mother is waiting for him in front of a dream house situated in the middle of a field. "You're late," she says. "Just like you dad." Christopher doesn't care. He doesn't see him anymore.
They sit on the couch, where he slept for five years, after his mother remarried. "I've got things to do," his stepfather says before slipping out. "He's living off your bank account, isn't he?" Christopher whispers to his mother. She touches his cheek. "Shh. Don't start."
Two other kids are playing noisily with the dog, September 11. They're "the new children," as Christopher calls them. He "fucked up" during his vocational education and in other ways too, he admits. But something about a PlayStation he borrowed from his stepfather was the final straw.
"This time I've had enough. Get your things and get out," the stepfather shouted. At first, Christopher slept hidden in a bush, next to the roundabout 500 meters from his mother's home. He ate from the bins of the fast food restaurant where he used to go with his cousin. That was six months ago.
On the couch, his mother asks him, "Have you found something now?" Before he leaves, she shoves sport socks and two chocolate bars in his small rucksack, next to the fleece blanket. Then, she says, "Promise me you won't talk about this with your grandma. She'd worry."
More need, less aid
In Valence, particularly committed Red Cross volunteers roam the streets to help the homeless. In front of the train station, a crowd gathers for clothes and food. "More and more people, and younger too," says Joseph, who heads the local branch. They hang out in small groups, inseparable for a few days or a few months, sharing everything and fighting over nothing, before splitting as suddenly as they formed to create new groups.
Homeless in Lyon — Photo: FaceMePLS
"If at least we still had compulsory military service," grumbles Las Vegas, a skinny man with blond eyelashes and wearing ball cap. "We were all equal in the army — same shit, same chances. At least we'd have achieved something."
Two of the city's four welcome centers have closed, leaving the homeless situation more difficult. Here as elsewhere, budgets for social aid have melted away, and entire services have vanished. Even the heated parking garage in the city center now closes at night.
"Let's go back to the wagon," another man, Guigui, tells his friend Stéphane. The wagon is where they sleep. It's a small abandoned train car at the end of the railroad tracks that was used as a shelter when Stéphane was a schoolboy here in Valence.
"Me, my parents threw me out of the house," Stéphane says. The crowd around him burst out laughing, even the undocumented immigrants and the old ones lost in their booze. They've heard it all before. It's become a common story to all of them.
"The concept of family has broken apart," says Jean-Luc, a shelter worker in Tournon, just north of Valence. "Kids end up on the street with every reason not to make it: no connections, no jobs, no experience and no qualifications. These young people are let down by social policies. It's as if they were told, 'We don't care about you.' We need a youth policy big bang."
Defeat and denial
Dusk sets in outside the Oasis jobs and homeless center in Romans, another town near Valence. Small groups of people are smoking in the garden, including a young couple who have been living in a broken-down van in the nearest parking garage. The cook at Oasis seems to them like "the only normal person here," one boy says. As for the other adults, "when we step inside their offices, we have to explain every time why we've fallen to such lows. Then the boss says he's got nothing or just a temporary thing." The girl from the van says it reminds her of school, with "worn out and depressed teachers."
That's when a young man appears. He steps from the train, wearing a thin jacket and black glasses too big for his face. He's got a job and an apartment, but he says he can't find his keys. The others stare at him, trying to size up the stranger.
Actually, Black Glasses has been living on the streets for two years. At first he tried Reims, in eastern France, believing he had uncles there. He found nobody. Then he headed southwest for the Corrèze, President François Hollande's region. "So many politicians come from there, so I told myself there must be something special there." Again, nothing.
So he headed for the Riviera for some sun and later to Paris for job hunting. He's lost nearly everything precious to him, except his cellphone. He's stopped believing he should have a reason for going somewhere. He just hops on any train and hops off when ticket inspectors catch him.
Black Glasses eyes the bowls of soup with hunger. But he rises abruptly, trying not to be vulnerable. "No thanks. No soup for me," he says, choosing to bluff for a little longer. "Good night. I'm going to the hotel."