I have just turned the final page of ‘J’Habite en bas de chez vous,’ the story of Brigitte, who survived on the streets of Paris for two years. Even in her darkest moments, she held herself apart from those with whom she shared a pavement. It wasn’t that she thought herself superior, only that she refused to follow them down the path of no return. She avoided the trap of booze, drugs or the dangerous mix of both that most sans abri use to escape their reality for a few moments. She insisted on regular showers and tried to keep herself as clean as possible. She cut her hair short and dressed in dark, heavy cover-alls to make herself unremarkable. When she could, she applied a little makeup.
Two things struck me about her story. The first was her relation with her neighbours in Place des Vosges and other passers by. She recounts many tales of amazing kindness – and others of horrible cruelty. Like the well-known (and unnamed) resident who ordered the police to rid the arches around the square of the homeless who took shelter there. While she understands his fear for his family – the eviction occured after one of them was knifed by a homeless junkie – she beseeches him for not doing more to change the system so people like her can find shelter. ‘Dans la rue il y a beaucoupp des gens normaux a qui le ciel est tombe sur la tete.’
The most powerful part of her story though, is how the street transformed her. You can see it in her green eyes that peer out from the cover of her book. Passively strong without being agressive. Overcoming her situation required enormous strength. She lost the soft part of her – perhaps forever. Though she has escaped the street, it has not escaped her. She likes to sleep with the windows open, and often suffers nightmares. She says she wants to forget, but not completely. The memory keeps her on her toes, reminding her that she – like you or me – could end up in the dirt, under the stars.