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The ATD Fourth World Movement
by Gérald Bitoun

A report on homelessness and poverty in France and the organization which, for 40 years, has sought to keep this human crisis before the eyes and ears of government. 

ATD Fourth World Movement (Aide ŕ Toute Détresse - literally: 'Help in all distress') began in France in 1957, in the muddy Noisy-le-Grand Camp - one of many shanty towns lying in the eastern suburbs of Paris. There, Father Joseph Wresinski (1917-1988) took over the torch from another exceptional priest, Abbé Pierre, who had founded this shelter for homeless people in 1955.

Hundreds of families pack into the camp, trying to survive, a day at a time, in tents, struggling against the extreme cold and mud of winter and the summer heat, battling against hunger and illness, confined by fear and the obvious indifference of the public authorities. Added to this is the physical confrontation with the police, psychological trauma, and the endemic ignorance shared by the ministry of housing, the general public, as well as charitable organizations.

ATD says: "Misery is worse than poverty. It cannot be relieved, we can only try to put an end to it. One must fight it as an evil, the supreme injustice, because this misery destroys all harmony and allows no hope of improvement." ATD volunteers settle in the camp and from the start they participate in initiatives set up by the homeless people themselves, considering them true partners, thinking in terms of rights and duties rather than assistance.

With few resources, this handful of volunteers endeavours to break a system which keeps the 'excluded' (Les exclus - a French term which neatly covers homelessness, marginalization, and all attendant woes) in a kind of political and economic coma, turning them into a downtrodden class. ATD has to deal with problems on all fronts at the same time: cultural, religious, social, and occupational.

ATD realizes that the poorest often know one another, since poverty is a closed circle just like that of the very rich and privileged. Poverty is also environmental with the corresponding transmission of values, knowledge and legacy which refutes all the cliches about isolation among the poor.

In this battle for freedom of speech and independence, ATD is setting up what will be called 'People's Universities' to help people become aware of their dignity and power, of their 'inalienable right to act freely for their own and other people's good'. As meeting places, the People's Universities offer the opportunity of a positive confrontation between the world of extreme poverty and the world of scientific research, through an exchange of ideas and a sharing of knowledge.

Among the excluded, the thirst for life and emancipation is great in spite of their fear of the system. ATD is working to heal the wounds and to knock down the walls. But the change is slow on both sides. One morning, the men and women of the shanty towns (and their children, if the parents have not been deprived of their right to raise them) are turned out of their homes; after a while their shelters - supposedly temporary, but which they have been living in for years - are razed by bulldozers. Some set off again just roaming around, giving up, which often leads to a dead end and tragedy. Others will finish up in an HLM (block of council flats), the 'reservations' of modern times. More sizeable than the sinister 'emergency areas', the tower blocks hide the truth of rootlessness and a lack of a group structure: the homeless are now excluded on two fronts.

All his life, Joseph Wresinski tried to expose the hypocrisy of the system: "The question is not what powers to allow the poor but rather: are we ready to let them have all the powers? From then on a change of civilization becomes possible. If the poor don't become true participating members they will never get anywhere. To be heard, one must be met. On the contrary, our system is based precisely on the avoidance of meeting with the poor. The encounter will happen only when the poor are able to escape confinement and appear in front of us as equals."

The present system exists by hiding the true extent of the problem. The policy of the French Government remains unchanged: small patched-up solutions or spectacular selective face-lifts, without real will or vision for the future. There is a reluctance to see the human side of the problem behind the statistics, to consider the wider issues, which would force the government to take new, radical steps.

ATD is now an international organization sustained by tens of thousands of sympathizers and thousands of volunteers helping to promote long-term action such as emergency rescue plans. The movement created in a wasteland under the impulse of a single man 40 years ago has become an essential partner to government housing policies. ATD also has a consultative status within NGOs, the United Nations, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), ILO (International Labour Organization), and other agencies.

However, the spectre of misery continues to haunt the outskirts of our towns and persists due to the lack of a real egalitarian political will. The members of ATD endeavour to bring solutions to the most elementary, the most down-to-earth problems which the homeless face. Issues such as schooling for children and adult literacy (a sine qua non to get out of the rut) stagnate, not through lack of structures or inadequate resources, but because extreme poverty is a vicious circle. Yesterday the poor queued impatiently with their buckets waiting to take water from the communal fountain; today, they knock on our doors and claim a share of privileges.

We are not speaking about the Developing World but about a rich country - France - which, with its colleagues from the G7, exploits and handles a major part of the world's wealth.

"The world of the poor is endowed with all creative possibilities along with the potential for defeatism and self-destruction. It is a universe crossed by an almost imperceptible boundary line. On this side of the line, the human being braces himself against adversity, clinging to the society and culture of which he is an under-privileged member; on the other side, the world is turned upside down; he gives up and surrenders. Beaten, he becomes the instrument of his own destitution, leading to misery."

For ATD Fourth World and others who have turned their back on dependency - there is at present no adequate way of dealing with misery and poverty as by-products of our civilization. They are a cancer we have to explore and cure with as much energy as we dedicate to fighting those diseases which seem to affect only our body, though they are the manifestation of a deeper and earlier imbalance. 'Misery is man-made and only man can destroy it.'

Homelessness in France

Population of France: 60 million
Unemployed population: 3 million
Estimated homeless population: 1 million

Over the last 20 years, 1979-1999:
Gross national product has increased by 50 per cent
Average income has increased by more than 33 per cent
Employment levels have decreased by 10 per cent
Population seeking employment has increased by 10 per cent
Twenty-five per cent of the unemployed are unskilled workers

From the May 1999 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005