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Tweets from the street connect French homeless to online world

media Patrick checks his Twitter account Alison Hird

A French project has given five homeless men smartphones with Twitter accounts meaning they can relate their experiences of life on the streets. Controversial when launched in October 2013, Tweets2rue (street tweets) now been extended beyond the initial six-month pilot phase.

Far from wanting to create a buzz, Tweets2rue seeks to change the way people see homelessness and help the men to help themselves.

Patrick eases off his 15kg backpack and slumps down on to a chair at a café terrace in central Paris.

“I’ve had enough of running around,” he smirks. “You Parisians are crazy.”

He breaks into a half-smile; his face heavily marked by three and a half years sleeping rough.

Patrick with Karen, one of his Twitter followers Alison Hird

He squints as he tries to read the number of followers he has on his Twitter account.

“1,981 yesterday,” he says. “But that’s peanuts compared with how many [homeless people] there are.”

Patrick, a former truck driver from Metz in the east of France, is one of the five homeless men chosen to take part in the Tweets2rue scheme. 

“We would have liked women too,” says co-founder Emmanuel Letourneux. “But none accepted. You have to expose yourself to many stressful situations and the women didn’t dare.”

Along with a network of day shelters called boutiques solidaires run by the Abbé Pierre foundation for the homeless, they chose five men aged between 24 and 47: Manu in Paris, Sebastian and Nicolas in Limoges and Patrick and Ryan in Metz.

Patrick was sceptical at first but is now well on the way to challenging his nickname of Le Grincheux or Mr. Grumpy.

When he tweeted about having difficulties with his eyesight, an optician offered him glasses. Another even wanted to give him a C15 van.

He couldn’t pick it up. Four years ago he lost his driving licence after a glass too many. It marked the starting point of what describes as “the descent into hell”.

“When I lost my driving licence, everything spiralled out of control," he recalls. "I lost my job, flat, friends, the whole lot.”

Sometimes he uses Twitter to help other homeless people.

“I asked for survival blankets for another homeless guy I knew in Metz, he was sleeping under a bridge. Within a week 10 or 15 had arrived [at the local day shelter].”

Thanks to tweets2rue he’s now climbing up the ladder, a step at a time.

One helping hand came from Patrick Sachot, head of France’s largest truck drivers union, FNCR, whose tweet may prove to be the first step in getting him back his HGV licence.

But Patrick says he wouldn’t have got this far without the help of three of his twitter followers: Karen, Anne-Gaël and Nadège.

“I call them my three bulldogs,” he says. “I’m in touch with one or the other everyday, by SMS, phone or twitter. They’ve always been there to pick me up or give me a kick up the butt, as they say, to make sure I move on.”

Karen, 23, sits next to him at the café. She provided moral support for today’s interview with Sachot.

She discovered tweets2rue via the media before she became a Twitter user. She started following the five men out of curiosity and a desire to help and chose Patrick “because of his [dry] sense of humour”.

For Emmanuel Letourneux, young people like Karen are altogether typical of the Tweets2rue followers.

“We’ve revealed a community of people who wouldn’t necessarily give to NGOs. They’re into direct involvement,” he says.

The project has also overcome some of the barriers in making contact with homeless people.

“The rejection of the homeless is linked to the way they look… the sight and smell,” says Letourneux. “Through Twitter we’re on a verbal mode. It’s not pity and it’s not charity. People just talk to one another and become friends.”

The project has come a long way since its launch when it received a huge media buzz and a fair amount of criticism. Some Twitter users said it was “shameful” to give rough sleepers geeky gadgets when what they really needed was shelter.

But Letourneaux insists a mobile phone is “simply a survival device nowadays”.

The project was inspired by a similar scheme in New York but the French team wanted to take it further, paying a lot of attention to coaching, accompanying the people and working closely with grassroots operators in the social field.

Cofounder David Cadasse is in charge of logistics and has regular face-to-face contact with the men.

He says they’re continually adapting the project, “changing the smartphones for example, to make them easier for the men to handle”.

“We have to change the way people see homeless people,” says Letourneux. “This project shows they are interesting.”

What’s more we should all feel concerned by the issue.

“It could be you, your child, your brother,” he adds.

Cadasse admits the other four men are not advancing as well as Patrick.

Manu, an undocumented migrant from Cote d’Ivoire initially got a big boost by the support he received on Twitter, especially when his mum died.

But, when he got depressed in Paris, he travelled to the south of France and ended up being deported to Italy.

Recent tweets show he’s trying to return to France.

Ryan remains very psychologically fragile and has tweeted about wanting to kill himself. But he told Cadasse the responses he’d had from followers had helped him get through.

“Homeless people are necessarily a fragile and complex community,” says Cadasse. “You expect there to be problems … but we’re giving them a way of helping themselves.”

Patrick agrees the project has given him “more self-confidence and a sense of purpose”.

But Twitter has its limits.

To get his driving licence back he has to pass the written exam. And that means studying.

“I used to live in a squat in Metz,” says Patrick, “but don’t have anywhere to go at the moment. It won’t be easy.”

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