Union Is Strength


In Nantes, an experiment in rehabilitating the homeless

It is the only project of its kind in Europe. Located in Nantes (western France), the 5Ponts Solidarity Village is a homeless shelter that also offers social reintegration. Situated in the heart of a residential area, it aims to create contact with local residents. But a year after its launch, many obstacles remain.

Guillaume Amouret (FR) / Eleftheria Tsaliki (EL) - Translated by Harry Bowden, Voxeurop

Version française / Ελληνική έκδοση

On the island of Nantes, a district operating on the principle of a solidarity village is being born, with the aim of enabling homeless people to better integrate
On the island of Nantes, a district operating on the principle of a solidarity village is being born, with the aim of enabling homeless people to better integrate. | Capture City of Nantes via YouTube

Nantes (France)

It's 1pm, the second lunch service starts at RestÔvives, the community restaurant at 5Ponts. Sidi, in his apron and cook's cap, is pacing back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen. His work is over: the team has finished preparing the food, and now it's time to serve it.

Here in the day centre of this complex run by the Nantes association Eaux Vives, which supports the homeless, the guests are eating. Forks clatter amid a cheerful atmosphere of conversation.

Located in the neighbourhood of Les Cinq Ponts on the Island of Nantes, the centre opened a year ago. It groups together the various services that the association already provided which were previously scattered around the city. One of these is the restaurant, where a meal costs €1.70. Every lunchtime, sixty meals are served to the association's residents and employees. They are the only ones to benefit for the moment, but the restaurant is set to open its doors to the general public in the future.

Every Monday and Friday, from 8am, Sidi puts on his cook's uniform. He started work in the kitchen in late February, after several months of homelessness. He is discreet about his past. "The first meeting I had with the team at 5Ponts was in October. I was in a difficult situation, housed by the 115 [the emergency accommodation number for homeless people]. But I already knew the social workers at Eaux Vives," he explains.

Previously, in his life as a husband and father, he used to spend an hour or two a day at the drop-in centre. It was after a difficult event that Sidi found himself without accommodation for several months.

"The pride of having a job"

At 5Ponts, he was first able to find a job. His position is one of the innovations tested by the organisation: it is a "first working hours" contract. Christine Besnier, the restaurant manager, describes it to us: "This type of contract is intended for people who are far removed from the world of work and have been homeless for at least three months."

In concrete terms, it's a fixed-term contract with no prerequisites, initially for four hours a week and rising to twenty-six hours at the end of the contract. The employee is supervised on a case-by-case basis. "If a person arrives drunk, for example, we will still accept them, but we will tell them that this poses a problem in terms of safety. These people may have a physiological need to drink alcohol because of their addiction," says Christine.

But in general, "what you notice about them is their pride in wearing their work clothes. It gives them a status that the other residents also want to have," she adds. Of the forty people that the association has employed in eighteen months with this type of contract, about thirty former homeless people have found a job or undergone training.

Today, Eaux Vives has eleven part-time employees on "first hours" contracts. And in addition to the rehabilitation opportunities that the programme offers to homeless people, it is also a change for the centre's employees. "During their working hours, they are our colleagues, and at the end of the day, they are guests again," explains Christine. This calls for certain adjustments. "For example, in the staff common room, we are used to talking to each other about the beneficiaries [guests]. But it is a space that first-hours staff can also use.”

A studio and pétanque

So Sidi is not only employed at 5Ponts, he also lives there. In early March, shortly after starting out in the kitchen, he moved into one of the forty studios located above the restaurant. Its 14sqm are fully equipped to provide a medium-term accommodation solution for the socially vulnerable.

Flanked by his counsellor, Sidi gives a tour of his apartment. "I feel good, it's a relief. I know that here I will be warm", he says. The layout is reminiscent of student accommodation, with the bathroom next to the kitchen near the entrance, and a small dividing wall hiding a bed and cupboards at the far end. In the corner opposite the bed, a TV screen and joysticks sit on a small black cabinet. Outside in the corridor there is a table, some chairs and a bookcase, shared by all the residents.

One of the social workers, Sarah, has been given the task of organising events to bring the residents together: film evenings, theatre outings, etc. For his part, Sidi spends his free time playing his favourite sport, pétanque, in the centre's garden. "Next month [with Sarah's help] we're going to hold a pétanque competition with several teams." He is training diligently: "I play every day. When you're in the game, you forget whatever's on your mind."

But Sidi doesn't often leave the village to go into Nantes. "The problem with the new centre is that the residents stay there," admits Quentin Col, who manages the accommodation and night shelter.

When the Eaux Vives association was spread over three different sites in the city, people had to carry their belongings from one place to another. Today, the problem is reversed. Boundaries in space and time have to be established. "When the day centre closes, we take thirty minutes to clean up, and then we open the door to the night centre on the other side of the building. As there are only thirty beds, we have to turn away ten people every night. That's also why we separate the entrances."

Limited exchange with the outside world

Despite the staff's wish to establish contact with other people in the neighbourhood, there are still not many opportunities. The main reason is the provisional nature of the current arrangement. Eaux Vives is still the only association to have set up shop. An urban garden and a solidarity market are still missing. "The Covid crisis has disrupted the funding plans", is the sober explanation.

The glasshouses on the 6th floor of the complex are therefore still empty. So are the new shops and offices built in the village. In the west of the Island of Nantes, the building site of the future university hospital adds to the feeling of a space not yet fully inhabited.

It will take time for the project to blossom. Clarie, manager of the 5Ponts village, is not to be outdone in her efforts to make it succeed. She already has several ideas for events to bring the local residents together. A year after its opening, the new solidarity village on the Island of Nantes is not yet fully operational, but there is no shortage of will to make it succeed.

European unionThis article was produced as part of the Union Is Strength competition, organised by Slate.fr with the financial support of the European Union. The article reflects the views of the author and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for its content or use.