1954, The Killer Winter
Night of January 3: as promised, Léo Hamon presents to the Assembly the amendment proposed by the Abbé Pierre. It suggests using one billion, out of the 90 billions allocated to construction, for the creation of necessary emergency estates. Unfortunately, after 72 hours of deliberation, the project is rejected. That same night, a few kilometres away from the Assembly, a three-month old baby dies from the cold in the bus that shelters his family in a makeshift encampment.
January 7: determined to impact the public opinion, the Abbé Pierre writes to Maurice Lemaire, Minister of Reconstruction and Housing. An open letter published by Le Figaro on the morning of the 5th
"Minister, sir, the little baby of the Coquelicots estate, in Neuilly-Plaisance, who died from the cold during the night of January 3, during the speech in which you rejected the “emergency estates”, will be buried on Thursday January 7, at 2 pm. It would be nice for you to be with us during that time. We are not bad people."
For long weeks, the Abbé has been struggling to make people understand that the homeless are not dishonest, nor lazy, they are simply persons who don’t earn enough to afford a hotel room when they leave the factory.
January 12: shortly before the funeral of little Marc, the Abbé learns that the minister will attend. At the designated time, Maurice Lemaire walks behind the funeral cortege through the Coquelicots encampment before reaching the cemetery. Shocked by a misery he never expected, he agrees to follow the Abbé to Pontault-Combault, where the companions of Emmaüs have already built some thirty houses using donations. The minister then gives his word to the Abbé that “emergency estates” will be built.
Night of January 30: the winter is even more violent. All the shelters, the hospices are full, even police stations are hosting the homeless for the night, but hundreds of men and women are still on the streets. The Abbé and his companions are again on the road in Paris to distribute blankets and supplies to the “ones who sleep outside”. For want of a better alternative, a large military tent is set up on the Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève Street by an American military surplus merchant. Straw is laid on the ground. In less than an hour, some sixty homeless people find shelter there. The Abbé slept with them.
February 1: during the night of January 30 1954, a woman was found dead on Sebastopol Boulevard. She has just been evicted. By morning, a journalist suggests to the Abbé Pierre sending out a call for solidarity on the radio.
The Abbé scribbles down a few improvised words – “my friends, help” – that are aired during the news bulletin on the RTF and read by the Abbé himself on Radio-Luxembourg.
The Abbé Pierre’s call on February 1, 1954, on Radio-Luxembourg
My friends, help!
A woman just died, frozen, last night at 3 am, on the sidewalk of the Sebastopol Boulevard, clutching the paper by which she was evicted the day before yesterday. Each night, more than two thousand persons curl up in the cold, on the street, without bread, more than one among them almost naked.
Facing so much horror, emergency estates aren’t even urgent enough. Listen to me. In three hours, two temporary centres were created, one close to the Panthéon, Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève Street, and the other in Courbevoie. They are already full; we need to open these centres everywhere. We need them this evening, in all the cities in France, in every neighbourhood in Paris, signs hanging under every light in the night, at the doors of places where one can find blankets, straw, soup, where one can read under the title “Brotherly Help Centre” these simple words:
“You, who are suffering, whoever you are, come in, sleep, eat, regain hope, here,
we love you”
The weather forecast announces a whole month of freezing temperatures. As long as winter lasts, these centres must last. Facing their brothers who are dying from misery, one “opinion” must exist among men: the will to make it impossible for this to go on.
I beg you; let’s love one another right away, enough to make this happen! That so much pain has given us this wonderful thing back: the common Soul of France.