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Coronavirus in Europe: France's homeless struggle amid lockdown

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Virus Outbreak France
Virus Outbreak France   -   Copyright  Bob Edme/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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The current coronavirus outbreak - and the public health emergency it unleashed - is hitting vulnerable groups particularly hard.

For those without shelter, or socially isolated because of their age or social status, basic necessities have become a daily struggle.

In France, many people have lost their usual networks of support - civil society groups, neighbours or family members now incapable of helping because of lockdown rules or fear of spreading or contracting the virus.

For the vulnerable, this is a crisis of enormous proportions.

France’s Red Cross is among the organisations working to fill the void – and making sure no one is left behind.

“The COVID-19 crisis today implies a total mobilisation of our organization,” said Jean-Christophe Combe, director-general of France’s Red Cross told Euronews.

“All of the actors of the Red Cross - be them volunteers or workers who we can count on (60,000 volunteers, 18,000 workers) are working daily to ensure the continuity of our essential activities in view of vulnerable people: the elderly, the handicapped, victims of social exclusion, the homeless...”

Combe said “several hundred thousand people” are currently in need of assistance across the country and that the organisation has had to adapt operations:

“We reinforced our teams of food distribution because today there are people who find themselves in dramatic situations because some services have stopped,” he said.

Armies of volunteers are now conducting a mix of food distribution and medical checks for homeless people all over the country.

They have also decided to create new services, including a hotline for those socially isolated: Croix Rouge Chez Vous (Red Cross At Home).

“We offer to listen, some moral support, we also offer a delivery service,” Combe said, explaining people who need help getting food or medicine – as well as those who are in need of psychological support – can call 09 70 28 30 00 seven days a week, from 8 am until 8 pm.

The call centre has also registered hundreds of calls from people volunteering to help:

“What is fabulous in these times of crisis is that the French are generous, there is solidarity. We are supported in our calls for funds, they also answer our calls for mobilisation, to engage. In one week, we received more than 800 new volunteers in our services across the country to reinforce our teams”.

'They’re telling people to self-isolate at home. I don’t have a home. So I self-isolate in a car park'

Euronews accompanied one of the Red Cross teams in action and got a chance to discuss with those on the frontline of the so-called war against the epidemic.

“We live in good health and are taking the necessary precautions," Olivier, a Red Cross volunteer, told Euronews.

"We are okay but are constantly in touch with people in fragile health - the people in the streets, they are the ones on the frontline, not us.”

France counts roughly 250,000 homeless people, according to rights groups.

Laurent, a 49-year-old who has been on the streets for the past decade, is one of them.

He told Euronews he doesn’t understand the measures adopted by the French government: “They’re telling people to self-isolate at home. I don’t have a home. So I self-isolate in a car park.”

His friend, Taofik, said they spend most of their time together – all the while keeping social distancing rules, “of course” – and explained that food is not their only struggle these days.

“To take a shower, to clean ourselves, to go to the toilet… these things are often super difficult for a homeless person. And now most public toilets are closed.”

The French government unveiled a financial package of €50 million to set up shelters for homeless people during the confinement period. Housing minister Julien Denormandie said the state is conscious of the risks for humanitarian workers as well, but that "solidarity must not be a victim of COVIDd-19".

“I think the government today is rediscovering the power of an organisation like the Red Cross that has a historical know-how, proximity with public services and the trust of citizens” said Combe. “We have the strength to mobilise and respond to this crisis”.