PARIS: Julie Lacoste has her own definition of the perfect Christmas present: It has to be a surprise, it has to be useful – but most important, it has to be light. “Portable,” as she puts it.
Lacoste, 31, and her two sons, Jules, 6, and Orphée, 2, are homeless. Every few weeks they pack one big duffel bag with their belongings, heave it onto a bicycle and move to another apartment. They crash on the floor of a friend’s house and rely on the charity of parents at the boys’ schools.
If they have avoided sleeping on the street so far, it is also because of the publicity Lacoste has reaped with a weekly blog she started in September.
This “diary of a homeless mother,” recounting the daily routine of juggling her job at a public library, the care for her children and the battle to find a place to stay, has resulted in dozens of offers of temporary accommodation.
It has also drawn some skepticism. “There are other cities and villages in France where life is sweet, rents are cheaper and there is work,” Sylvaine P. wrote on the blog on Dec. 10. “One gets the feeling that you haven’t necessarily always made the right decisions.”
Lacoste’s response is categorical: “Paris is home. I have a job here and friends. All I need is an apartment.”
“Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming,” she said one recent morning, drinking herbal tea at a café near their latest address in northern Paris. “Someone even offered me a book contract. But how can I write a book without an ending? I need to get an apartment first.”
Lacoste, well-dressed and employed, may be an unlikely face of the homeless. But her tale has a growing resonance in France: As the global economic crisis eats into incomes and prices more struggling people out of the housing market, national pride in egalitarian values and a generous welfare system is being punctured.
Add a cold spell in the run-up to Christmas, and the plight of those without a stable roof over their heads has once again become a national debate.
Seven people have died in the cold in the Paris area since November, most of them in makeshift homeless camps in the forests bordering some of the wealthiest neighborhoods.
That brought the countrywide toll so far this year to 343 homeless deaths, compared with a little more than 210 in 2007, according to according to the Abbé Pierre Foundation, a charity dealing with housing issues.
“Shame” was the title of a recent editorial in Le Monde, in which the center-left newspaper called on the government to tackle the longstanding housing shortage that has raised rents and pushed up the number of eligible people waiting for subsidized housing.
Politicians “would be well-advised to seize the occasion and put into place a real housing policy,” the editorial read, “if only to spare this country the shame of seeing the unfortunate die at the gates of Paris.”
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