French initiative @tweets2rue reconnecting homeless Parisians via social media
During the cold of last November, an initiative in Paris gave smartphones to a group of homeless men and asked them to tweet about their lives. DW checks on the project's progress.
Like most French people, Patrick, a 47-year-old, has a smartphone and a Twitter account. But there is one surprising thing about him: he has been living on the streets for more than three years.
A 2013 study by the National Statistics institute would suggest he is just one of more than 140,000 homeless people in France.
That figure has doubled in the past decade.
"It's a really complicated situation," says Patrick, "it pushes you to the edge of society."
Patrick used to be a truck driver, but he lost his driving license and has lived on the streets ever since.
He is hesitant to talk about his life before the streets because he also lost his friends, family and house.
But for the past six months, Patrick has been a member of the initiative Tweets de Rue (Street Tweets) and through it he has slowly been learning to talk about his life again - and reconnect with society.
Patrick has garnered quite a following on Twitter on his travels from Paris to Metz
Backed by the Red Cross, Tweets de Rue (@tweets2rue) was launched last November.
The idea is simple: give smartphones to five homeless people and encourage them to express themselves via Twitter.
Emmanuel Letourneux is one of the people behind Tweets de Rue.
He says the experiment was inspired by a New York initiative that lasted only fifteen days. Unlike its American counterpart, the French initiative first went on for six months and has now been renewed.
"One of the objectives of Tweets de Rue is to allow people to directly hear or read what homeless people have to say without any mediation," says Letourneux. "We also wanted to show there are good people ready to help - people who would not usually get involved in a non-profit organization."
Letourneux: it's about hearing unfiltered stories from homeless people
But Tweets de Rue came under a lot of criticism when it was first launched in Paris.
Some people called it voyeuristic. Even the five men were unsure of how it would work.
"I don't like to have too much contact with people, so initially I was a bit skeptical," says Patrick. "But it allowed me to see what people think of the homeless and to talk with strangers. I tend to be more comfortable and at ease with strangers than with people I've known for a long time."
Six months later, Letourneux says the initiative has been a success.
He says more than 10,000 people follow Patrick and the four other men on Twitter - possibly propelled by the fact that they have also organized monthly live discussions on the social media platform.
Beyond tweeting everyday, Patrick has also walked across France and written a blog about his experiences.
"I've met three of my followers. That's something I could not have imagined myself doing just on year ago."
"It warms my heart," he says, "because I was all alone and I cut ties with my friends and my family. Now I've made new friends, sincere people who aren't afraid to tell me the truth."
But it's not all good
For others, the project has not been as successful.
A tweet from Manu: I'm being deported to Italy
Manu, an undocumented migrant from Cote d'Ivoire initially got a big boost from the support he received on Twitter.
But he suffered from depression in Paris and traveled to the south of France and was eventually deported to Italy.
He has since tweeted that he was trying to get back to France.
Another participant, 24 year-old Ryan, who had been living on the streets for five months, deserted the micro blogging project.
"That was bound to happen," says Letourneux. "That's why we had a lot of contact with the five men during the experiment."
Co-founder David Cadasse is in charge of logistics and is one of the people who has regular face-to-face contact with the men.
Cadasse: had to teach the homeless men how to tweet
"The homeless people are very fragile, so I had to teach them how to tweet," Cadasse says. "I had to stay very close to them because, for homeless people, tomorrow is a long way off. I had to reassure them and be careful with the press. When you are homeless, you are not used to being the center of attention."
A new kind of solidarity
Letourneux says it's been an important goal of theirs to prove that young people want to get involved.
"It would not have been possible without Twitter," he says. "Twitter embodies this new sensitivity of people and it can be very helpful in the event of emergencies. Twitter is a symbol, a symbol of a new way of organizing solidarity."
Some have even been inspired by Tweets de Rue to develop their own projects.
One such project is the student association Sans A, which interviews homeless people about their lives and posts the videos online.
And why not? If Twitter and other social media can connect people from different countries, why not use it to connect people who live right next to each other?