A Homeless Family's European Trip

The debate over New York’s homeless exportation program has reached this idylic Normandy village, which received a family without warning—and now can’t find them anywhere.

On the picturesque coast of Normandy, where tens of thousands of liberating American soldiers landed 65 years ago, there is disgruntled talk about the return of the Americans, or at least the conditions of their return. This time the invasion consists of just five people who arrived in the historic town of Granville on one-way tickets supplied by the mayor of New York City.

Granville, population 15,000, is a picturesque coastal town famous for native son Christian Dior and for the lush hilltop gardens that inspired some of his legendary scents. Not surprisingly, it is a popular destination for tourists, who are charmed by the 15th century ramparts, cobblestone streets and granite homes. There’s even a drawbridge near the edge of the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel.

When Granville Mayor Caruhel was originally told what had happened, he assumed it was a prank.

It is hardly the sort of place where you’d expect New York City to unload homeless people. And yet, as Granville mayor Daniel Caruhel told Le Figaro newspaper recently, “An American [homeless] family arrived for a long stay in my town. My New York colleague, Michael Bloomberg, didn’t warn me.” Mayor Caruhel has nothing against the homeless—he says that his town will welcome them—but he considers the fact that they were summarily shipped off to France as the “merchandising of misery.”

How does a homeless family from a major American metropolis end up dumped in a region known for Camembert and Calvados? It started with some simple math : it costs New York City about $3,000 per month per family to house its official homeless population of about 38,000, as it is required to do by law. Putting someone on a bus to Philadelphia or a plane to Charleston or even San Francisco costs a fraction of that. So, desperate to find savings in the city budget, New York City—like a number of others—decided several years ago to pursue a policy that involves offering one-way tickets to homeless people willing to relocate. But New York being New York, the scale of this send-the-homeless-home policy is bigger, broader, and more ambitious than elsewhere. Basically, New York will fly them nearly anywhere on earth, as long as they have a family member there to receive them.

Since 2007, the New York Times reported last month, nearly 550 city-housed families have accepted voluntary repatriation (at a total program cost of about a half million dollars per year) to 24 states and five continents. The biggest off-shore destination is Puerto Rico, although families have been sent as far afoot as South Africa and, yes, France.

It turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, that there are several problems with this policy, at least on the international side. Here in France, it isn’t just that there are already plenty of homeless, merci beaucoup. There are practical issues as well. The family of five was given plane tickets to Paris and train tickets to Granville, at a total cost of $6,332. But New York doesn’t appear to have alerted French authorities to their arrival. France’s Ministry of Immigration and the Granville town hall, among others, only learned that this was happening when they were told about it by French journalists who saw a blurb about a homeless family destined for France buried in the Times article. And so far, they have not managed to identify the family. The newcomers have not applied for the residency documents required for all non-citizens, which suggests that they might be dual nationals or that they were down-on-their-luck French folk in New York.

When Mayor Caruhel was originally told about the arrival of the New York homeless, he assumed it was a prank. Then a journalist sent him a copy of the Times article. Now he is furious. Mayor Bloomberg’s policies are, he told a French journalist, the “exportation of poverty…He is getting rid of the homeless with an aberrant cynicism.” Beyond that, he said, the least New York could have done was warn French authorities so they could prepare.

Still, Granville promises to welcome the family from New York City, should they ever surface. “Unlike New York, if the family present themselves, we will give them a second chance. We will do what is in our power to welcome them in Granville.”

Asked about the policy of exporting the poor on CNN recently, Mayor Bloomberg made clear that the real issue is one of stark economics. The city has a choice : shell out every day to house people, or shell out once and for all to buy them a one-way ticket. On a human level, he expressed hope that it might be easier for such people to find employment and get a new start in a new place. But, at the very least, it makes for less work for the city of New York.

Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek Magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl , which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Vibe, Le Courrier International, Salon, Los Angeles and others. He is based in Paris.