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Saturday 30 September 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Sylvain Leser via PA Images A homeless man sleeps under a bridges close to the cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.
Lynn Ruane How this French charity shop treats the homeless should inspire us to help our own
Communal meals, a chance to work and help to make a home – the scheme gives clients control of their lives.

IT STARTED WITH a phone call. Stéphane Crouzat, French ambassador to Ireland, rang to tell me I had been chosen for programme personnalités d’avenir, a study week for people showing leadership in their field, whether that be academia, activism or politics.

I love to learn and expand my mind in the hope that I can take everything I learn back into my work, and apply it to the various policy areas I work on. And so I was honoured and eager to meet with Stéphane and his team to work together to plan the trip with the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs.

My five-day trip to Paris was tailored to the issues I work on in Ireland: the penal system, education and addiction. I had one request, that my study week would not be filled with meetings of national organisations or high-level interest groups but with groups working at a grassroots level and in a community setting.

This request was met with the most amazing study week I could have imagined. In between meetings with the relevant governmental departments, I spent the week in the communities most affected by structural inequality. My week was packed with visits to prisons, second chance education centres and closed education centres, just to name a few. I also spent some time in Paris’s safe injecting site.

I have so many observations and stories to tell from that week and many of the visits and meetings stand out to me. Melun Prison for one had a very personal impact on me and I am still trying to put that visit into words.

As that process happens naturally, I have been focusing my efforts on other initiatives in Paris that Ireland could look to for inspiration. One of those – a programme for rough sleepers – is run by a chain of charity shops called Emmaüs Défi.

Rebuilding connections with society

I spent most of the trip in the suburbs of Paris, in areas you would never see on your picturesque Paris postcards. One community that impressed me was the employees and staff of the Emmaüs Défi charity shop.

I walked in through this small front door and it opened up into a large space of colour and character. I was immediately approached by the enthusiastic staff; both the people who are experiencing homelessness and the staff who support and facilitate them.

The space had a familiar feel – it reminded me of the Windsor Market where I used to go as a teen. All the staff who had arrived from their night of sleeping rough on the streets of Paris were busy setting up in their part of the market.

Just outside the shop front the number of customers steadily grew, eager to get into the charity market space. In the hour before the charity shop opens everyone is fed lunch.

There was a real sense of community as everyone sat down to eat together before their busy shift. In the time it took for the management to show me the warehouse, which includes the delivery and sorting rooms, the charity shop was bustling with busy shoppers.

In the hours I spent at the Emmaüs Défi charity shop I learned that no one is excluded from working there if they show up under the influence; instead they are allowed to miss the shift and be scheduled in for another. This style of low-threshold engagement that is absent of punishment is key for building relationships and ensuring a service that meets the needs of the group they work with.

In the early stages of working at the shop, they are only given a minimum number of hours until they are ready to do more and while they’re there they have access to support with their circumstances.

Moreover, the potential for people to rebuild connections with society in a meaningful way was evident. At the back of the shop there was what I can only describe as a showroom: hidden by a curtain. Only invited families and persons could enter the space by appointment. It was strictly for people getting ready to move out of homelessness and their appointment in the shop was to kit out their new place.

They would attend a number of appointments to pick, design and plan out their homes and nothing in this room was second hand. The charity shop has a deal with some of the big homeware stores in Paris whereby the stock that is not sold in their stores is donated in bulk to Emmaüs Défi.

What is special about this is that it gives people control over doing their own home up. It gives people who have spent, in some cases, years on the streets the support to make their home comfortable and make it feel like their own.

homeless 368_90528156 Sam Boal via Rollingnews. Latest Department of Housing figures show that there are now 10,378 people living in homeless emergency accommodation in Dublin, with almost 4,000 of these children. Sam Boal via Rollingnews.

I remember in the mid-2000s, as I did the morning wake-up call in a homeless hostel in Dublin, I would find the same man each morning on the floor rather than in the bed.

He spoke of the struggle of sleeping in the bed when he had spent a huge portion of his life sleeping on the ground. Everything felt different in the bed and even though his room was safer than the street it still didn’t feel like his own. If this man was to later exit homelessness I believe that the process used in the Emmaüs Défi shop could go some way towards building a person’s relationship with the home into which they have to transition.

The premises is provided at a lower rate of rent and is successful in its efforts due to the large profile of the Emmaüs Défi Charities across Paris. There is no reason why this model couldn’t be replicated by some of our large charities.

Often the long-term homeless are seen as one of the hardest-to-reach groups but that may be because we are not providing interventions that work for them. We need to have a programme that not only provides people with employment, support, education and connection but does so while being flexible to the complex needs of this particular group.

This initiative is just one of many we could look to.

Lynn Ruane is an independent senator. 

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