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Paris Retailers Are Giving Out Free Meals, Haircuts, and Toothbrushes to the Homeless

Sixty retailers have signed up for the scheme, which seeks to provide the homeless in the 11th Arrondissement with basic necessities and services.

by Solenn Sugier
May 25 2016, 4:10pm

Foto di Lucile Lissandre/VICE News

A new sticker has been appearing in the windows of shops and restaurants in the 11th Arrondissement of Paris. Displayed alongside restaurant award stickers and credit card logos, the small blue and white stickers are part of a new initiative that aims to provide the needy with basic necessities and services.

Whenever they see the stickers — which depict a cup of water, a first-aid kit, a bathroom and a variety of other services — the local homeless know they can step in for a free meal or a free toothbrush. Some businesses are also letting people charge their phones, use their restroom or wash their clothes. Hairdressers who have enrolled in the scheme are giving out free haircuts, while some apparel stores are distributing clothes.

Stickers displayed in the window of participating businesses advertise what services are available to those in need. (Image via Le Carillon)

The initiative, called Le Carillon, is the brainchild of Louis-Xavier Leca, a Parisian with a background in socially responsible finance. After working on major projects abroad, Leca felt the impulse to make a difference at home.

"I felt powerless when I bumped into people living on my street." he said. "I wanted to witness the impact of my actions."

Since there were few local programs in place, Leca decided to launch his own. In 2014, he started approaching local shopkeepers and restaurant owners and cultivated them as partners.

"I realized that some retailers were already helping out," he said. "They wanted to help, but they didn't know what to do."

Le Carillon, which is still in its pilot phase, boasts a network of 60 local partners. Aid groups have been handing out the list of participating stores and restaurants to those living in the streets. Some retailers have pitched in with promoting the scheme, offering incentives to increase public participation. One restaurant, for example, has pledged to give away a free hot drink for every meal purchased.

Some stores have pledged to give away free clothing. (Image by Lucile Lissandre/VICE News)

Christian Wailly is a familiar presence in the neighborhood — greeting passers-by, shaking hands, and stopping to talk with friends.

"I'm pretty chatty. Once upon a time I was a salesman," he said. Wailly has been a regular in the neighborhood since 2002. He spent two years living on the streets. Today, he stays at a nearby hotel.

Wailly found out about the Carillon initiative through Leca.

"I go to drink tea in a restaurant not far from here. I go to another one to eat," he said. "We say hello, they put me in the back room where there's no one. They tell me to pick a burger, and they buy me the meal."

He explained that the initiative has also helped him foster relationships with businesses that are not part of the network, some of which give away free cups of coffee to the needy.

For Leca, increasing awareness within the community is at the heart of the project.

"We citizens need to become more aware of those living on the streets so we can tackle the feeling of exclusion," he remarked. "It's a small contribution."

Small-scale civic action has been around for years. In 2013, the "suspended coffee" movement was popularized thanks to social media campaigns, but later died down. Imported from Naples, Italy, the concept of "suspended coffee" sees one person buying two coffees, but only drinking one. The other coffee can be claimed later by anyone who needs a free cup of joe.

"Initiatives like the Carillon usually spring up to compensate for the lack of public services," said Maryse Bresson, a sociology professor at the University of Versailles. "Historically there have been two types of response to precariousness: condemnation and pity. With the welfare state, society is meant to set up the appropriate infrastructure to include those who need help. These citizen-led initiatives are there to compensate for what is seen as a lack."

Leca believes that the scheme has helped break down the wall between the homeless community and the neighborhood residents.

"The retailers could have been worried about their customers' reaction," she said. "But it's really the opposite. Today, it's more like they yell at us if no one comes in."

Participating hairdressers are offering free haircuts for the homeless. (Image by Lucile Lissandre/VICE News)

Stéphanie Aude, a waitress in one of the participating restaurants, noted that some of the neighborhood's homeless are reluctant to cash in the kindness.

"The homeless are not coming in droves," she said. "Some of them aren't comfortable. I know one man who got a meal ticket. He wanted to give it to me — he didn't really know what to do with it. He tends to want to help out in exchange for a meal."

Many of the homeless people in the 11th Arrondissement said they hadn't heard about the scheme. Others said they would feel uncomfortable going inside the participating stores.

Some local retailers explained that they have been helping out locals in need long before the scheme was launched.

"I invite people I know, who are in need," said a restaurant owner on Rue Oberkampf. "But honestly, the people in the park next door, I don't invite them. They're wasted 24/7, what's the point?"

Neighborhood restaurants and cafés are giving out free meals and hot drinks. (Image by Lucile Lissandre/VICE News)

Rudy Setti, a pharmacist on Parmentier Avenue, said he has seen a huge increase in the number of people he regularly helps out since the launch of the initiative.

"It's nothing like it used to be," he said. "Before, we would help out one or two people every four months. Today, it's one or two a day."

Setti considers that giving out water and basic personal hygiene necessities is part of his mission as a pharmacist.

"We are healthcare professionals, our door is always open," he said, adding that he has nothing but praise for the Carillon initiative. "It's going well, people are not abusing it. The customers don't even notice. There is no judgment."

"In this neighborhood, there was a wave of generosity following the November attacks," Setti noted. "It's good to help people when you know they're in need, but it's important to keep doing it."

Leca's plan is to turn his pilot initiative into a long-term scheme and to roll it out to other neighborhoods of the city. For Bresson, this type of citizen-led engagement can have a lasting impact "if it is well-managed and organized, both on an organizational level and with volunteers."

Leca is planning to train volunteers in other cities, whose job will be to enroll businesses and start local networks. He hopes that by September the initiative will have reached other parts of France and other European countries.

Follow Solenn on Twitter: @SolennSugier

This article originally appeared in VICE News' French edition.