Beggars And Choosers

On Dressing While Homeless

THE STREET IS A place of force, competition, power games and violence. The most aggressive and strong among the men who live here ultimately win the struggle for the street’s scarce resources – money, food, a sleeping space. They are forced to compete, to fight – often violently, often against the law. This is what we see when we walk down the street, trying not to make eye contact with the man begging on the steps of the Metro.

As one of Europe’s main urban centres, Paris is rife with homelessness. Because sleeping rough and begging is not illegal here, the way the gendarmerie patrol homelessness differs significantly from cities like New York and London; the policy here is laissez-faire as long as the people on the street are not violent or aggressive. As a result, homelessness is more visible, and when the temperature rises in summer, it’s not uncommon to see people living in tents along the Seine or on street corners.1 The areas around Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est are crowded with SDF,2 as well as with the security forces impeding them. At times, up to twelve different types of police and security – from army soldiers and national police to the SNCF and RATP armed forces,3 to walkie-talkie bearing security guards – patrol the stations on the outlook for aggressive beggars, drug dealing or using. A first source of conflict is therefore often with these official forces. At the same time, safe sleeping spaces on the street, housing in shelters and money (from the public) are in short supply and therefore contested within groups of homeless people themselves. Violence, and knowing when and how to use it, is an important skill. Acting ‘like a man’ – as someone who is able to defend himself at all times – becomes a necessary outer shell in this context.

Stereotypes about violent and ragged men on the street might be hackneyed, but as classifications used by all from academics to daily news sources, they have entered the public consciousness and stayed there.4 However, despite their often slip-shod outward appearance there is a more complex, nuanced portrait of the average homeless man that the typical passerby often isn’t able to see. For instance, Erik, a man from Hungary in his late thirties, struggles with addiction and lets me observe its affect on him; Pascal and Lauri have become friends on the street and joke about each other’s daydreams and small luxuries; Francois has re-developed a certain taste as well as idiosyncrasies when it comes to his choice of clothes.

But you would never get this impression by walking through Gare du Nord. With the stories that follow I’m hoping to deconstruct the tough, violent masculinity so often linked to men in the street. I would like to paint a subtler portrait through a handful of stories revolving around the first thing we notice about the homeless: their clothes. By looking at five different pieces of attire – a T-shirt, a bag, a pair of boxer shorts, a coat and some shoes – as well as the men who wear them, I will unfold some of the ambiguities surrounding the sartorial choices of the homeless. Each of these garments are entry points into different parts of these men’s lives; they symbolise friendship, violence, drugs, relationships, sex, money and, in particular, home.

Skid Row, L.A., 2003 © Camilo José Vergara
Skid Row, Los Angeles, Camilo José Vergara, 2003.

THE T-SHIRT

Oh yes, I was in hospital yesterday. I was in a fight and the guy knocked me out. He was massive; he’d just come out of prison. We call him Terminator. He wanted money from me. I don’t really know what happened after I got knocked out, but somebody must have called the Pompiers5 because I woke up in hospital – like this.

As I approach a small group of homeless men I know quite well, I’m struck by what I see. Aron, Small Dariusz and Tall Dariusz are sitting on a bench in the middle of Place Franz Liszt, surrounded by humming traffic. I cross the street, darting between cars circling Gare du Nord, as Small Dariusz stands up. His T-shirt and coat almost fall off him; they are cut right through. His upper body is barely covered by the two garments that hang from his shoulders in bold strips. I can see his bare back from behind as I move toward the bench.

It’s not the first time I see somebody who has been beaten up: fights happen all the time on the street. Almost every week one of my key informants tells me about conflicts and their usually violent resolution. Mostly these fights are about marginalities: stealing a can of beer, sitting on the wrong bench, looking at someone in the wrong way. Small Dariusz can’t remember what started this particular conflict, but he remembers that it was in the hospital that doctors cut his clothes to shreds. ‘I wasn’t in a good state and they just wanted to get me out of these clothes,’ he tells me. ‘I think they just cut through them with their scissors. They didn’t give me different clothes this morning.’

Small Dariusz spent the night in hospital but in the morning he immediately wanted to leave; he doesn’t like institutions. And he doesn’t like to stay in hospital after a fight; it’s something only weaklings do. Only a five-minute walk separates the hospital and Place Franz Liszt. Here he is welcomed back by his friends, all other Polish men, all of whom sleep in the area. They share tents, try and get into emergency housing for the night or sleep under the closest and most comfortable roof they can find. They look after each other.

Small Dariusz is just about to change his clothes; for a brief moment he stands topless while quietly continuing the conversation with me. Aron has just given him a new T-shirt. He throws his ruined shirt in the bin and we make our way to Leaderprice to stock up on beer.

THE BAG

It’s the first thing I search for when I wake up in the morning. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I hold it in my hand so nobody can open it. It’s precious.

Originally from Hungary, Erik is explaining the importance of the little black bag he always carries. He has been on the streets of Paris for almost five years, having worked in Spain for a decade before that. Now, he opens the small, square-shaped pouch while we talk. As he unpacks, a world unfolds in front of me somewhere in a parking lot corner underneath La Defense, where I’m visiting him at his sleeping place.

A white box immediately stands out; it’s called Le Kit +. Its shell is full of writing: a warning message from the ministry of health, several helpline numbers, instructions of how to use the equipment, a detailed list of its contents. Inside, on top of everything else is a condom (‘Most people just throw that away.’). Underneath there are two syringes, already equipped with short, fixed needles, the type often used by patients with diabetes. Two small containers of distilled water, two sterile mini-metal cups and alcohol pads accompany the syringes. Erik opens the small front pocket of the pouch and takes out a small bottle: twenty ml of methadone in a brown glass container. The methadone is not supposed to be injected, but is given out freely to registered clients by various risk-reduction associations by the train station as a heroin substitute. Most people don’t like to just drink it: shooting up produces a nicer, more immediate feeling.

Erik unscrews the bottle; it opens with a click. With several surprisingly quick and precise movements of his hand, he unwraps the cup, fills it with water and methadone and prepares the syringe. He rolls up his sweater, looks at the smattering of perforations he has made across his arm over the past few days, and decides on the one to use this time. He is shaking.

The needle is still in Erik’s hand as he remembers something else left in his bag: a little plastic box containing a glass tube, two metal filters and a plastic bag with a small, thumb-nail sized white rock. ‘I was lucky and a guy gave me some crack just before I left the station yesterday,’ he tells me. He melts the crack into the metal filter of his pipe, lights up and inhales. He smiles at me: ‘This will help me keep going. Keeps me awake. I didn’t sleep for three days last week. I had enough money.’

Ten minutes later, Erik puts the black bag around his neck again. He collects all the utensils, puts them back into the two little boxes, and closes each one carefully. Then he hides them in the little black pouch. Like so many other homeless drug users with similar little black pouches around their necks, Erik will replicate this exact routine throughout his day: beg for money, score drugs, shoot up, smoke, take a short break – repeat.

Skid Row, Los Angeles. By Camilo José Vergara.
Skid Row, Los Angeles, Camilo José Vergara.

THE BOXER SHORTS

Today, I called him Prince. Usually, he tells me how arrogant I am to not want to beg anymore or because I wear certain clothes and go to the hairdresser rather than just shave my head. But today he was the prince. He got up at six thirty and made a big deal out of spraying deodorant all over himself. And then he was really keen to go to the people who give out fresh underwear. He told me about his rendez-vous with Marie, his social worker. ‘You never know what might happen,’ he said.

Pascal is getting excited telling me about Lauri’s special day. Pascal and Lauri are friends; they share a sleeping camp located in a train somewhere in the south of Paris. Pascal tells me that Lauri doesn’t usually change his underwear every day. This is common among homeless men; sometimes they wear their boxers several days in a row before throwing them away. Nobody wants to carry their boxers around and wait for the weekly wash at a homeless shelter in the centre. They start to smell too quickly – just like socks. And they are easily available. So on the day of Lauri’s appointment, the pair walked to Amitié, a day centre for homeless people in the west of Paris, where they knew they could get clean underwear. It opened early.

I saw them later that day at another day centre, this one close to Gare du Nord, where I volunteer regularly. This is where Lauri has his rendez-vous; he seems tense and excited. I know Pascal is half-joking; the likelihood of Lauri hooking up with his social worker is small. But it happens. Pascal, in fact, has seen his own social worker outside office hours several times; she once paid for a hotel. He assured me that nothing ‘really sexual’ happened (‘No way, she is still a virgin. Muslim and stuff.’).

Underwear, this most intimate of garments, is as important to the homeless as they are to the rest of us. As Pascal explains, ‘You want to be normal, or as normal as possible. I’m not in a good state to have a relationship or anything now. I already feel bad seeing [my social worker] – she could lose her job. But at least I can try to feel as normal as possible.’

THE COAT

What you wear is important. If you look broken you can’t expect too much help. If you’re dirty, people keep a distance. You don’t have to look like an SDF.

Carlo is an experienced beggar; he’d already been in this line of work for two years when I met him last summer. ‘I prefer working [i.e. asking people for money] in big and open spaces like in front of Gare Saint Lazare. People need to see me first; I need to have eye contact with them for a couple of seconds so they can see that I’m not aggressive or disgusting or weird or anything.’

Carlo is concerned about his looks; it’s important to him how his ‘outer shell’ – his coat – appears. Decent clothes make it easier to earn money, easier to approach people on a more or less equal level. A clean and undamaged coat turns Carlo – at least at first sight – into one of ‘them.’ Ultimately, it is a sign of normalcy, of fitting in. It makes him appear as if in an emergency situation, at least for the snap-second it takes for us to make the decision so important to him: to give or not to give.6

But the coat also comes with a second purpose: it’s the smallest possible of homes, a sleeping bag and a comforter when sleeping rough. Carlo goes on, ‘It’s such a weird feeling when you’re trying to sleep outside for the first time. I mean without even a sleeping bag. Since childhood we’re used to feeling something on top of us when we’re sleeping, something heavy. Turning a coat into a duvet is better than wearing it, somehow. It feels more secure and warm.’

THE SHOES

What’s the most important piece of clothing for you? Shoes. Definitely shoes. I’m running around all day long. I need good shoes. They need to fit.

As Francois and I walk to the Vestiboutique7 of the Croix-Rouge, he explains what he is looking for in shoes: comfort and sturdiness.

‘Sometimes, when I walk around the whole day in the same shoes and it starts raining, it’s really disgusting. The wetness soaks everything through, and when I take my shoes off in the evening they’re glued to my foot. It’s repulsive.’

We are greeted warmly by the people at the clothing bank, and immediately taken to the back room where clothes reserved for people in need are kept. It’s Francois’ first time and he’s surprised by the amount of clothes on offer. He gets a new T-shirt, a belt, a pair of jeans, underwear and socks in minutes. And then we get to the shoes. This is where the unexpected complications start.

‘I don’t like these at all. They’re not strong enough. These don’t fit. They’re too big. Do you have something that goes up a little, like above my ankles? These already have a hole.’ Francois is incredibly picky when it comes to this last, and, according to him, most important item of clothing. It takes us a while to settle on a pair of sneakers with a thick rubber sole that fit him almost perfectly. By that time, the patience of the Vestiboutique volunteer is stretched thin, as is mine.

***

How can somebody be so fussy about something offered for free? This was my first thought during this interaction with Francois. Beggars can’t be choosers. Talking to him about it afterwards, however, made me aware of my error: being on the street doesn’t mean we give up our desire to feel in control of our own lives, or that we’re ready to forfeit our ability to make choices. Perhaps most importantly, there are moments on the street that are not about force, violence or pressure, nor about displaying manliness according to the tired tropes of this outmoded attitude – these are the moments that leave room for vulnerability, for dependency and affection.

Skid Row, Los Angeles. By Camilo José Vergara.
Skid Row, Los Angeles, Camilo José Vergara.

My experience with Francois is perhaps the most explicit demonstration of this, but Lauri’s daydream – and the sartorial preparations that went with it – are similarly telling. Competition – not for money or space but for attention, sensuality, love, comes to the fore here. Lauri dares to imagine a different future for himself, and his choice of clothing reflects his dreams. Erik’s little black bag symbolises his dependency – the suffering he tries to forget and the pain induced by the drugs – but it also allows him to put all of these emotions, the ‘mixed bag’ of feelings, away. He can, so to speak, contain both them and it and – when needed – transform into the strong defender of his territory, the money-maker and fighter he also needs to be. Francois’ shoes are a means of transportation, but also of comfort and protection, and the care with which he selects them proves the importance of choosing right on every count.

In all these instances, clothing becomes a tool, a way of approximating normalcy for those whose lives are anything but. Being out of control, fighting, struggling and causing scenes is perhaps what we associate with the men who live on the margins of society. I don’t want to deny that this is part of their daily routine: anthropologists like Dennis Webster8 and Jennifer Rowe and Stacy Wolche9 have given a clear explanation for the frequency of competition and fighting: short-term needs, such as procuring food and shelter and drugs, are preeminent and not easy to obtain. But being a man on the street also entails being dependent on support, help, others. In fact, already in the early twentieth century the sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel defined being poor as exactly that: ‘The poor person, sociologically speaking, is the individual who receives assistance because of this lack of means.’10 Assistance is often about money and materiality – Carlo chooses a certain coat to make people give to him; but it can also be about social interaction, closeness, love and affection. Ultimately life on the street as a man is first and foremost about finding normalcy both as a tactic and a deep desire and dream. Socially, this is expressed in bonds of friendship and love which very often do not go back into the past, to old friends and family as the social scientist Christopher Jencks found while studying a group of homeless people in Chicago in the 1990s: ‘A third said they had no contact with their relatives, even though they almost all had kin in the Chicago area.’11 Support instead comes from the street and from interactions with other people in similar situations. It comes in the form of a T-shirt given to Small Dariusz by his friend and in the joking relationship between Lauri and Pascal. It often comes in the form of the immaterial gift, in the form of ‘giving […] time: listening to people, making visits.’12 Without these practices of daily happiness, life on the street would indeed be unbearable.13 They introduce a certain sense of hope and wellbeing and, in philosopher Lauren Berlant’s words, are necessary to ‘keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world.’14

Ultimately, the garments belonging to the people I have met on the street do not always scream ‘poverty’ or ‘violence.’ They might at times be messy but for those who care to look beyond their shambolic appearance, they are also the belongings of men who need what men need everywhere: each other.

Johannes Lenhard is a social anthropologist, finishing his PhD research at Cambridge University in England.

These photographs are from a series taken on Los Angeles’ Skid Row by Camilo José Vergara. Vergara trained as a sociologist specialised in urbanism at Columbia University before becoming a photographer in the late 1970s.

This article was originally published in Vestoj’s latest issue, ‘On Masculinities,’ available on www.vestoj.com and in select bookstores now.


  1. Since 1994, homelessness – in the form of activities such as rough sleeping and begging – is not illegal or policeable in Paris in the same way as it is in the U.K. (Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill 2013-14). As a result, homelessness is much more visible – in the form of temporary dwellings along the Canal St Martin or on pavements, most obviously so through the red, green or black tents which were first introduced by the association Les Enfants de Don Quichotte in 2006. 

  2. Sans Domicile Fixe, transl. without fixed abode 

  3. SNCF – Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais, the public railway company in France; RATP – Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, the public company behind the Parisian metro system. 

  4. See for example: L Smith, ‘Sexual exploitation, violence and drugs: The reality of being a homeless woman in Britain,’ Telegraph, 21/09/2015, accessible: www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-health/11879403/Sexual-exploitation-violence-and-drugs-A-homeless-woman-in-Britain.html. J L Jasinski, J K Wesely, Hard Lives, Mean Streets, Boston: Northeastern, 2015. R Anderson, ‘Homeless violence and the informal rules of street life,’ Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, 1996, 5(4):369-380. J Barragan, ‘Shining a light on a vulnerable population,’ Statesman, 13/11/2015, accessible: projects.statesman.com/news/homeless-deaths/ France soir, Paris: Une touriste Girondine violemment poignardée par un SDF a Montparnasse, 28/06/2016, accessible: www.francesoir.fr/societe-faits-divers/paris-une-touriste-girondine-violemment-poignardee-par-un-sdf-montparnasse 

  5. In France, the Pompiers fulfill the function of both the fire brigade and the ambulance. In this instance, they would have come from hospital Lariboisière, about five minutes from Place Franz Liszt. 

  6. While this is a common tactic to convince people to give it is not the only one; in fact the opposite idea – looking needy, really run down, dirty – might work in different situations. E Summerson Carr (Scripting Addiction — The Politics of Therapeturic Talk and American Sobriety, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2011) describes this behaviour of adapting to the circumstances for alcohol users very vividly. 

  7. The Vestiboutique is the clothing bank of the Croix-Rouge, or French Red Cross, close to Gare du Nord. It functions both as a charity shop for paying customers and a way for people in need to obtain clothes for free. 

  8. D Webster, The Park of Street Life and Community in Pretoria, South Africa, Open Anthropology Cooperative Press Working Paper 16, 2013. 

  9. J R Wolch, S Rowe, On the Streets: Mobility Paths of the Urban Homeless, City and Society, 1996, 6(4), pp.115–140. 

  10. G Simmel, ‘The Poor,’ In D. N. Levine, ed. On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings of Georg Simmel. London, University of Chicago Press, 1908, pp. 150–179. 

  11. C Jencks, The Homeless, Cambridge (MA), London, Harvard University Press, 1995. 

  12. J Godbout, A Caille, The World of the Gift, London, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008, p. 78. 

  13. H Walker, I Kavedzija, ‘Values of Happiness,’ HAU, Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 2015, 5(3): pp. 1-23. 

  14. L Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Durham, Duke University Press, 2011, p. 77.