This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Cradled in her mother's arms, Hawa* guzzles a bottle of milk. Two months old and already sporting a full head of curls, she's blissfully carefree for someone who's just narrowly avoided living on the street. Her mother, Véronique, had been days away from surviving the cold with a newly-born baby, safe in a hospital bed for ten days, before she received a call from 115 – France's emergency shelter number – informing her there was a spot for her at La Rochefoucauld Centre for new mothers.
"Since June, we've welcomed 50 homeless new mothers," says Sihem Habchi, director of activities at the Aurore Association, which runs the centre. According to the Regional Health Agency, 2,400 new mothers in France had nowhere to go after giving birth in 2017. France is not unique in this respect: in the UK, homelessness of single mothers surged 48 percent between 2009 and 2018. And in Dublin, where rents have soared in recent years, this image of a homeless five-year-old eating dinner off a cardboard box went viral late last year. In fact, throughout all of Europe, Finland is the only country where homeless rates are falling, according to the World Economic Forum.
"Here at the centre, the women have access to a childcare nurse and medical observation, since their health is typically so fragile," says Habchi.
Some women living at the centre have fled other countries while pregnant, never dreaming they'd end up on the streets of France. Véronique fled her native Cameroon and a violent husband; Melinda* is searching for a job so she can support her four-year-old son, who she left behind in Côte d’Ivoire. For Blanche*, who slept on the streets during her pregnancy, leaving Côte d'Ivoire was the only way to save her unborn child’s life: "In my village in Côte d’Ivoire, they kill women like me, women who haven’t undergone religious rites. I left to protect the baby inside me."
Often, the danger begins at the news of a woman's pregnancy. "A friend housed me in her two-room apartment," recalls Melinda. "But once my baby was born, her husband didn't want me there anymore, because of the lack of space." Meanwhile, Priscillia, from Congo, had to deal with learning that her boyfriend, who impregnated her, was married. For each woman, a room at the centre spared them having to sleep on the street with their newborns.
Despite the joy of having a baby, these young mothers nervously count down the days in hospital, waiting for a call from 115 telling them they have a place to live. It was seven days for Véronique, ten for Thérèse and three weeks for Priscillia. To avoid turning new mothers out onto the street, the maternity wards have no choice but to prolong the women's stays – which is what happened to Véronique and Thérèse before they ended up at the centre. Melinda is still grateful to a hospital worker "who convinced my friend to request a few extra days for me after I gave birth, so I'd have enough time to find somewhere to go".
Not everyone is so lucky. Three days after giving birth, Blanche was forced to spend nights in the hall of the hospital she gave birth in, leaving when the sun came up. Alice, originally from Romania, did the same. "You sleep in a chair, you can't wash your baby or your clothes," she says. "You can't take care of a kid in those conditions." Habchi from the Aurore Association puts it more bluntly: "Letting a newborn out into the world without anywhere to stay is abuse."
"A warm place where you can bathe and sleep, with milk and nappies for your baby – that's all we ask," says Melinda. In other words, access to the necessities that allow you to rest your body and mind, since most women are physically and emotionally exhausted when they arrive. "At the beginning, I slept a lot in my room with my daughter; my Caesarean had zapped all of my energy," recalls Véronique. The days are passed with walks in the garden, French classes and naps. Most of the mothers' time is spent with their children – their "only confidante and only family", as Véronique puts it. But sometimes mothers end up talking to each other in the hall and helping each other out. Priscillia forged a friendship with another mother from her native Congo.
But tensions can arise. The association must put two mothers and children in every room if it wants to respond effectively to the influx of homeless women from maternity wards. "When a baby cries, they wake up everyone," laments Thérèse. "And not all mothers have the same habits."
Some, like Blanche and her two-month-old son, are so used to noise that they sleep right through it. Alice, meanwhile, criticises the centre: "They're not helping me get my social security; they don’t give me any clothes for the baby, so I have to ask his dad. And I don't talk to the other girls since I get angry quickly." Alice's social worker, Baya Mostefaoui, sympathises with her situation. "It's very stressful for her – particularly her tense relationship with the baby’s father, who beat her," she says.
Poor nutrition, stress and exposure to violence all make homeless women susceptible to complicated pregnancies, according to research by the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA). Medical risks increase after birth, "especially from infections or Caesareans", explains Linda Mokri, the centre's childcare nurse. Vaccinations, nutrition and postnatal and paediatric care are included in the centre's maternity care programme.
They also take care of some all-important admin for the mothers. "It's the social workers’ job to help them get their papers and security benefits," says Mostefaoui. "I tell them about different kinds of financial aid they'll be eligible for once they have their papers; until then, they won’t get anything." Since the typical stay at the centre doesn’t exceed three months, social workers also try to lay some groundwork for the women's future. For example, Mostefaoui has already prepared Thérèse’s AME (state medical aid) renewal file, so she'll only need to post it in once she's left the centre.
Over the past three months, Véronique has devoted a lot of thought to her and her baby's future. With her three-month residence permit now in hand, she has landed a job at a cleaning company, which gives her some peace of mind. "When I move out into my own studio," she says, "I'll be opening up a place at the centre for another girl who needs it." Alice, Melinda and Priscillia likewise envision a happy future for themselves and their children. Alice wants to train as a security guard so her child can "go to school and become a lawyer". Melinda and Priscillia plan to become elder-care aides once they have their papers.
But while their kids help them stay positive, many fear their departure from the centre. "Their next chapter might play out in a crisis hotel or a longer-term emergency shelter centre," says Habchi, adding that "no one will leave the centre without somewhere to go". But with the centre due to close its doors in April of 2020, nothing long-term is guaranteed for Paris’ most vulnerable women and their babies.
* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the interviewees.