Since the beginning of December, the Migrant Solidarity Wilson group has been distributing meals to homeless migrants in Paris. Every Tuesday, outreach workers venture out on motorcycles to reach those who are becoming increasingly isolated in the French capital.
Like every Tuesday night, the meeting point is in front of the Belle Étoile theater, in Saint-Denis, near Paris. Closed because of COVID-19, the establishment lets the Solidarity Migrants Wilson group use its kitchens to prepare about half of the 700 or so meals that are distributed. The rest is provided by a volunteer.
Created in 2016 by a handful of residents of La Plaine Saint-Denis to distribute breakfasts to the homeless migrants at the Porte de la Chapelle, the group has adapted to the situation. In order to reach out to the migrants who are displaced as soon as they settle somewhere, their outreach workers have become mobile.
On Tuesday, January 5, 11 teams -- including one made up of five motorcycles and scooters -- are distributing meals from the Porte d'Aubervilliers in the north of Paris to the center of the capital. Most of the meals are handed out by a stationary team in the Porte d'Aubervilliers neighborhood. Volunteers on bicycles and in cars circulate in the surrounding area to distribute food as well. The motorcycle team carries 60 meals.
"We distribute to everyone, migrant or homeless. We don't ask for people's papers before feeding them," says Philippe Caro, a volunteer with the group.
The motorcycle patrols are new for the group. They were set up a few weeks after the dismantling of the Saint Denis camp on November 17. Since the evacuation, the migrants have been even more isolated. Many of them were pushed out of central Paris several years ago.
'We're looking for people who are hiding'
"We know that there are people on the street in need but we have a hard time finding them with these policies that chase them away as soon as they settle somewhere. The motorcycles make it possible to cover a larger area in Paris to go and meet them," explains Akim, one of the volunteers of the collective in charge of planning the meal distribution routes.
He gives instructions to the around fifty volunteers who have come to take part in the operation and are gathered in front of the theater's illuminated facade. "Make sure you stay in teams of at least two people, the mood is quite tense at the moment [...] If people have specific needs other than food, tell them to contact other organizations."
"We are looking for people who are hiding so it is important to remain discrete," Caro advises. "If you don't see anyone, you might feel useless, but tonight we will distribute nearly 700 meals."
Once the meal trays, plastic cutlery and thermos flasks of tea are loaded onto the vehicles, the motorcycle team sets off, heading for the ring road to quickly get to the Porte de Bercy, then the Austerlitz train station and the banks of the Seine.
'We haven't eaten since yesterday'
Under the Austerlitz bridge, the luminous halo of a fire is barely visible behind a garbage can. Three young Moroccans are trying to warm themselves around some pieces of wood burning next to a tent. Wearing jogging pants and light jackets despite the fact that it is barely three degrees Celsius, they ask for food and drink. In a mix of French and Spanish, Abdul Rahman, a yellow jacket on his back and green jogging pants, explains that he and his companions are between 15 and 17 years old.
"We arrived in France two weeks ago and in Paris five days ago," he says between two bites of the lentil dish that he swallows hungrily. "We haven't eaten since yesterday. During the day, we walk but we don't know where we should go." Teenagers don't understand that as minors, they have the right to state protection.
In addition to the food and tea, the volunteers hand the young migrants subway maps, masks, tissues and explain how to get to Demie, the Red Cross evaluation system for exiles who claim to be minors, on rue du Moulin Joly, near the Couronnes subway station.
'No one should live here'
The team heads off in the icy air towards the Gare de Lyon. Dozens of tents are lined up in the Van Gogh tunnel, under the esplanade of the station.
Some people have been living here for several months. Others have landed here through the chaos of life and hope to leave the place soon. Such is the case for Alassane, a 17-year-old Guinean. Recognized as a minor, he was lodged in a home in Val-d'Oise but he says he had to leave the establishment after being accused of infecting other young people with COVID-19. "I hung out on the street and ended up here," he says, sitting on a curb near a tiny fire made from three thin planks of wood.
Alassane knows that he is entitled to accommodation. "I have an appointment with my supervisor on Thursday, I think she will find a solution," he says. Standing next to him is Lamine, a 16-year-old Malian, who has not yet been recognized as a minor. He has an appointment the next day with the evaluation teams of the Demie.
The tunnel is also home to Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian migrants. Angela is Romanian. In good French, the home aide describes finding herself on the street following a complicated divorce. She is hopeful that she will recover very quickly. "No one should live here. You've seen how young they all are," she laments as she looks down the tunnel. "They all told me their stories, why they left home. They are lost here, they don't know what steps they should take."
At the entrance of the tunnel, a small crowd has formed. A few high school students came to bring meals but, overwhelmed by the number of people to feed, they don't stay long. "We can't let ourselves be surrounded by dozens of people," says a sorry-looking young man as he leaves.
After passing through the tunnel, almost all of the team's meals have been distributed. The rest will go to people living on the street who were spotted by the volunteers during previous patrols.
Paris emptied of pedestrians
The team leaves. They make a brief stop at the Pont Marie in the center of Paris, where a team from the Humaniteam collective is handing out meals and hygiene kits. The volunteers greet each other warmly.
It is already almost 10 pm and the Parisian streets, emptied of pedestrians by curfew, are silent. Sometimes, a police car siren tears the silence of the night. Along with the policemen and bicycle delivery men, the volunteers are the only ones walking around the sleeping city.
Along the Rue de Rivoli, the team stops every 50 meters to offer someone a meal and tea. "What is crazy is to think that we are in the middle of a health crisis and that everyone is supposed to be at home," laments Caro, distressed to see, once again, so many people in the street.
The patrol reaches its ending point in front of the Gare de l'Est station. Some are heading home while others will continue further north to Porte de la Chapelle. The 60 meals have been handed out. There are still one or two cups of tea left in the thermos. For the members of the motorcycle patrol, the process will repeat in a week's time.