Paris Cops' "Brigade for the Assistance of Homeless People" FWD

Tom Boland (
Wed, 18 Feb 1998 10:54:44 -0800 (PST)

FWD  By Mort Rosenblum, AP Special Correspondent  February 9, 1998


PARIS (AP) -- Francis and Francois, men in blue, pilot their Renault van
through the freezing night in search of creatures they alone can recognize,
ready for swift action.

``There, look,'' Francis Watelle murmurs, indicating a shapeless bundle on
a corner by the Louvre. To visitors next to him, he adds, with respect:
``That's a real one, as real as they get.''

The bundle, as both men knew at a glance, is Jose. Francis puts his
policeman's cap over his close-cropped hair and hops out for a

``Not today, pal,'' Jose tells him, with a thespian flair. ``I'm just going
to hang out a while, and then I have some very important things to do.''

Francis shrugs, and returns to the hunt. He is a cop, but the Brigade for
the Assistance of Homeless People -- better known by its French acronym,
Bapsa -- picks up only those who want help.

Sometimes, Jose climbs in the heated van for a ride to Nanterre Hospital, a
crumbling 280-bed facility with communal showers, weak soup, grim bunks,
free clothes and a shuttle bus back to the street.

With 3 million Frenchmen out of work, 12.2 percent of the labor force, a
growing number of desperate people are living on the street. Some survive
by dealing drugs or mugging.

But Jose is a genuine ``clochard,'' a French bum with roots in society
predating Victor Hugo. No doper, drop-out or down-and-out, he has been on
the street for 40 years because he prefers it.

Tonight Jose is a little grumpy.

``Hey, I'm not Paul Newman,'' he roars when a small Leica is aimed at him.
``I'll slit your throat.'' Despite a fierce black beard and lethal aroma,
he seems too gentlemanly for violence.

The next candidate, however, has Watelle and his partner, Francois
Mongeard, nervously fingering their blackjacks.

Mirek Rowicki, a 21-year-old Pole, is just finishing a quart of whiskey
with an unsteady friend, while a third young man lies motionless on the

He has five silver rings through each earlobe, and nine more in his
eyebrows, lower lip and nose. Tattoos start at his shaved scalp and cover
most of the skin not hidden by filthy clothes.

``Normal, normal,'' Mirek says, tapping his chest and exercising the extent
of his French vocabulary. ``No clochard.''

The officers neither search for drugs nor check visas. They take names only
for a register forwarded to an overnight mobile medical team that will
check later to make sure Mirek is still normal.

``The population out there is getting younger and more violent,'' says Lt.
Alain Denetre, a 31-year police veteran, who heads the 64-man -- and
one-woman -- Bapsa unit. ``It can get nasty.''

Between private, religious and public shelters, Paris offers about 15,000
overnight beds for the homeless. But most have strict rules: no booze or
drugs; strict hours; a thorough wash.

A well-organized bum can ring up a shelter to reserve a bed and later call
the SAMU Social, a state-run medical assistance service, for a free ride to
get there at night.

But many diehard clochards and out-of-control desperados stick it out on
the street. Each month, 10 Bapsa vans carry about 2,000 of them to Nanterre
for a brief respite.

Denetre says half the ``clients'' are picked up after someone complains,
usually about bathroom habits. Otherwise, patrols cruise at random.

``It can be a tough call,'' he explains. ``The law says no one can be taken
unless they volunteer. Yet sometimes you see they are deranged, or in
danger of freezing, and you have to coax them.''

Bapsa officers, whose average age is 48, often make a whole career of the

``We rely on older, more experienced guys who can handle being cursed at
and puked on without losing their cool,'' Denetre says. ``We actually try
to do a little good.''

Watelle is a huge man with a stern stare. Mongeard, smaller, nonetheless
displays a no-nonsense demeanor. But they pursue their quarry with a
philosophical air and clear admiration.

``Old Lucien, he must be 75 years old,'' Watelle says of a clochard who
haunts a posh neighborhood near the Israeli embassy. ``Someone once offered
him a room of his own, and he refused.''

Mongeard laughs as Watelle, the gentle giant, tells the story. He knows
Lucien well.

``The old guy just shook his head and repeated, `Ah, no. ... An apartment?
Ah, no.'''

The men make bets over who they will find where. They search for a young
couple by the commodity exchange but find only their bedroom: two neatly
folded cardboard boxes by a heat exhaust duct.

``Here's one,'' Watelle says and then adds: ``No, wait. He's got a dog.''
Nanterre does not take pets. Occasionally, someone will smuggle his pet rat
aboard the van.

By the Palais Royale, a clochard makes a polite hand signal: ``No,
thanks.'' Farther along, another abandons his beggar's cup and runs.

At the shift's end, there have been only two takers.

Dominique, 37, with a tragic Edith Piaf face, was happy to come in out of
the cold. She didn't look homeless, but the men in blue knew her. Her
luggage was half a bottle of red rotgut.

Little Louis, 49, was in a dead sleep over a Metro grating. Watelle took
one look at an ugly cut over his eye and persuaded him to come along. For
the first mile, Louis howled abuse from the back.

Then, slurring his words, he poked Dominique's shoulder and started to
socialize: ``Hey, little sister.'' She began to describe a cat she knew at
Nanterre. He talked about marriage.

Soon enough, Dominique and Louis and two visitors were sharing the wine and
talking about life on the street. She tenderly took Louis' hand and
stoically ignored his endearments.

The party would not last much longer than the dwindling wine. At Nanterre,
the two went their separate ways, to men's and women's facilities.  By
morning, the two passengers would be warmed up, dried out and back at their
respective corners until the Bapsa boys next happened by.


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