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Tackling homelessness through direct action | Charles-Edouard Vincent | TEDxHECParis

Tackling homelessness through direct action | Charles-Edouard  Vincent | TEDxHECParis

It is obvious that somebody who has spent
ten years on the streets cannot get a job. He is living outside, very often dirty, with many drug or alcohol addictions. Very often with a mental disease, among others. And among everything, [experimenting] such a social exclusion that makes him just unemployable. So many social workers
and experts told me: “Homeless people
just cannot get a job. It’s obvious. It’s just obvious.” Well, we, with a few friends, a few years ago,
we said no to the obvious, and we decided to change the script of the story saying
homeless people could not get a job. What did we do? We created a company, a non-profit company called Emmaüs Défi. This company has
a very simple business model, just getting unused old products that individual citizens do give to us. We collect them, [check] them repair them, and sell them
at a very cheap price. Our activity actually is just a means so that we can provide
a job to homeless people. And seven years ago, I started by hiring two
homeless people in the first month, and the month after, another two more. And the month after, four homeless persons and the month after,
eight homeless persons. And today, Emmaüs Défi is a company employing more than 200 employees, most of them being former homeless people. So we changed the script of the story [that said] homeless people
cannot get a job. Was it easy? Did we succeed immediately? I will tell you: immediately no. We failed many times because we started
by providing a full-time job. And when people are sleeping outside, they cannot wash themselves,
cannot get breakfast. Actually, when people
are living on the ground, in the subway, or in the woods, when they have no idea
if it’s Monday or Sunday, – sometimes if it’s night or day,
if you are living in a parking lot – how come do you want them to be there
at work every day, at 8, sharply? So we failed, many times. And we had to invent a system which made the job
accessible to these people. That is why we created what we call
‘the work by the hour’ system. We said: “You cannot get a full-time job? We are going to start
very smoothly, at your pace.” And we started just with one or two hours. And the week after,
if these one or two hours were OK – and very often
the first one or two hours the people were coming,
you know, just like that; but no problem, they were coming – if they wanted to show
that they were in a better shape, they could do two or three hours. And then, the week after,
three or four hours. And then, little by little, we could get them back to a full-time job. This system, the job itself, was not the goal. The job is just a means, a means for these people
to demonstrate to themselves that they are able to go back
to our normal society. A means for themselves
to build self-esteem again. A means for themselves
to look at them differently and to exist differently
in the eyes of the others. So we changed the script of the story that said homeless people
cannot get a job. After a while, at Emmaüs Défi, I had some problems
because we had too many families coming asking us for products
in order to equip their home. What happened to these families is they are the type of families
who haven’t paid their rent for a while, and who get expulsed from their home. So, they end up with their kids
going from shelters to shelters, and from social welfare hostels
to social welfare hostels. How long does it last? On average, six, seven, eight years. One day, the social worker calls them and say,
“We have a home for you.” Can you imagine
the happiness of this family? And they arrive in this home,
with their two pieces of luggage, and it is empty. Where are they going to sleep? So they come to me, in my shop and they say: “Do you have any beds, mattresses, furniture, and bed sheets and everything that we need, a table,
chairs so we can just get a home?” And I say: “I’m sorry. My shop is empty,
and I don’t get enough equipment.” So I wondered, “What are we going to do?” If we don’t get
enough stuff from individuals, we are going to go to companies
to ask them to help us. So many people told me: “Don’t expect companies
to help you fight homelessness. They just don’t care. They have to do business
and they are not the ones on whom you can rely
to help all these families.” And I said: “We have to change the script of this story where companies
don’t care, because it’s not true.” Inside companies,
we have people like you and me, working, and feeling that sometimes,
they need to do something. And I met this vice-president, of the biggest French wholesaler company, and I told him my story. And he said, “You know, I cannot help you. I don’t want to help you. What I want to do is to build together a business activity, non-profit, but a sustainable
business activity to equip these families. As a wholesaler, we are going to do
something like the Food Bank. All year-long we have promotions and at the end of the promotions,
I have plenty of unsold products that I need to get rid of,
and it costs me some money. So, if you find a warehouse
where we can stock these products, then we will be able to equip
all of your families.” And I said, “I agree, so let’s do it.” But he said: “It’s not enough. I want my team in the supply chain to build with your team
of homeless people this business activity. And today we have a business activity
run by our two organizations. They manage, they advise us they support us, voluntarily,
in delivering all these products, and we have equipped
over the last two years more than 750 families
with all these products. And as I am speaking, it is every week, more than ten families
coming to this warehouse and being able to be equipped. We changed the script of the story saying that companies don’t care. Don’t you find it shocking
when you are in the subway, and you have a homeless person
begging for some money, and you are just on the point
of giving him a coin, one euro, and at this very moment,
you hear a ring bell, and you see the guy just taking
out his mobile phone and saying: “Yeah? Oh, alright, yeah.
Yeah, alright, I’ll be there. See you.” And you are standing there
with your coin, just thinking, “Fuck, I want to give him money so that he can buy food
not to pay his bill.” Mobile phone is just luxury. This guy needs to eat. I’m ready to help him so that he can eat. Actually, homeless people prefer to have a mobile phone than a meal or a night in the hostel. And do you know why? Because this mobile phone
is their last address. It is the only way for them
to be still in touch with the connected society. If you don’t get a mobile phone, you are even more excluded
from our society. So we need to change
the script of the story that says a mobile phone
is a luxury for homeless people. And I went to see a big Telco operator,
and I told my story to the CEO, and together we built a program enabling, over the last few years,
more than 7,000 people to get a permanent
and consistent access to mobile phones. Having access to a mobile phone is great, but what you have to realize is that this tool enables these people to find help if they are sick, to call the police if they are in danger, to find a job or to find home, a shelter. Most importantly, this mobile phone helps these people
to keep in touch with their own families. So we changed the script. We have changed the script of certainties, the script of these certainties that create so much suffering
in our society. It has been tough. It has been sometimes painful. We struggled, we had so many difficulties, and we’ve had also so many failures; failures that we learned from to transform also these failures
into a draft for future success. So it was not easy every day, but we found the energy
inside of ourselves, in the belief that it is possible
to build a more humane society, because I have the very strong conviction that homelessness is not a fatality. And I have the very strong conviction that the light of life
never gets extinguished. Our responsibility is to make sure that we create the environment
for all the homeless people so that this light,
this small light of life, can shine again. And what we discovered is that when this light shines again, our own light of life shines stronger. Utopia does not exist. What exists is the world that we build. So, it’s up to us, and it’s up to you to change the script and to change the world. Think about it. Thank you. (Applause)

1 thought on “Tackling homelessness through direct action | Charles-Edouard Vincent | TEDxHECParis

  1. Wow! That's the magic of the universe at work! I live in Vancouver, Canada and our homeless population is in dire need of assistance. Thanks for this amazing inspiration! Many blessings!

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