Quality of cities, the magazine of the RATP group that shows THE CITY DIFFERENTLY.

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Witnesses

Interview with Vanessa Benoit

Vanessa Benoit is the managing director of Samusocial de Paris. Vanessa has built her career around the themes of housing and social and urban development in the United States and France, and became the managing director of Samusocial de Paris in January 2021.

How is it that the city, which normally attracts people, can also become a breeding ground for exclusion?
V.B. : Before it excludes, the city attracts. Survey after survey clearly shows that people living on the streets, young people in need and migrants see the potential for integration in the city, and believe they can find a place in this dense ecosystem.

Exclusion begins when the city refuses to acknowledge these people and ceases to take them into account in public policies.

What is their main problem? Housing? Employment?
V.B. : Housing. Many arrive with a short-term, precarious set-up: a flat-share, a cousin’s sofa, a mattress at their uncle’s place – who himself lives at a shelter – and the problems start when these set-ups break down. We see women become homeless because they get pregnant and then have to leave the place where they had been staying. Temporary accommodation is available for 100,000 people in the Ile-de-France region every night, including 55,000 in hotels, but the question is how to get out of temporary accommodation and into housing.

Everything becomes harder (transport, hygiene, etc.) if you don’t have a place of your own. During the first weeks of lockdown in March 2020, the city’s ecosystem froze, and people in the street no longer had access to things like food aid, surplus from dustbins, meals donated by restaurants, or public toilets.

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"We form one and the same society, and it’s important to give these people we rub shoulders with every day more visibility, and to include their voices."

Vanessa Benoit
Managing director of Samusocial de Paris

What practical measures do you implement, and how effective are they
V.B. : Samusocial will soon be 30 years old, and was created to cope with social emergencies, but today we are going further and developing more permanent, comprehensive solutions. One of the key aspects is to reach out to people. Our mobile, multidisciplinary teams seek to create a bond, to offer a solution to each person while respecting their dignity. Like all solidarity stakeholders, we are attempting to move away from standardised systems and a mass approach that does not work, but we can’t do all this alone.

We work extensively with partners, such as RATP and its Social Shelter team, which does underground what we do up above in the streets (see box below). We are in contact with specialised partners for each community: women, the undocumented, very old dependent people or those with mental health problems; this last group makes up one third of homeless people.

So, inclusion is also about learning to see those around us?
We form one and the same society, and it’s important to give these people we rub shoulders with every day more visibility, and to include their voices. The people supported by Samusocial are in the process of developing proposals for the presidential campaign as part of what we call “the permanent debate”.

They are pushing us to re-examine our actions by highlighting themes that we wouldn’t necessarily have considered, including ecology, led by a working group that was recently awarded a tender to create a shared vegetable garden.

COMBATING SEVERE SOCIAL EXCLUSION UNDERNEATH THE CITY

RATP Social Shelter teams comprise approximately 60 volunteer staff, and have been reaching out to homeless people in the metro since 1994 to guide them, if they so wish, towards shelter and support services. RATP spends €6 million of its annual budget on combatting severe social exclusion.

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