The Gatekeeper blues

Published: 2018/03/08

In Lyon, hotels are not just for tourists


In Lyon, like in other big French cities, the 6500-beds welfare shelter system is overwhelmed by a growing number of homeless people, including families with children and severe health issues. In order protect the most vulnerable families, the government uses low-cost hotels: Bed & Breakfasts [1]. On Christmas Eve, 800 people were sheltered in these hotels. For the people working there, being in contact with extreme poverty was hard to handle daily.



I entered a tiny brown building surrounded by the ever-lasting autumnal drizzle, wider than its height, judging by its architecture, it’s the kind of motel you would expect to find in an industrial zone in Baltimore, not in Lyon.

A shut-down factory surrounded by barbed-wire stands between the motel and the highway. Pedestrians claim that the noise is less disturbing at peak hour, when the hectic traffic comes to a near-halt. The white-tiled entrance hall is neither big nor cozy, yet it feels welcoming.

My visit in a low cost hotel near Lyon

It contains a pale wooden breakfast table and six straw chairs, a cupboard containing breakfast foods is sealed by a shutter to prevent daytime looting. In a corner, a microwave is hidden by two chocolate bar dispensers.

There is also a reception bank, Jeanne slides behind it when it is time to pay and when she is not busy with other tasks.

I came here for work, she offers me coffee and pours her and her colleague a well-deserved cup as indeed both are responsible for the immaculate cleanliness of the place.

I seize the opportunity to interrupt their conversation and ask how things are going with families living here thanks to the governments’ “emergency supply system”.

Talking with Jeanne, receptionist at the hotel

“First, nobody should be living in our B&B’s, our facilities are not made for that purpose. There’s no kitchen here, how could anybody possibly live here?

We only have one micro-wave for the entire building and we offer ready-made meals which cost €4.50 for a “small portion” so imagine how much it costs to feed an entire family.


Electric hotplates are forbidden in our rooms for obvious security reasons, so we have to turn a blind eye, we just hope this won’t lead us to jail someday. Families have no other option than to cook what they were given in food banks.


“We feel guilty when we come back home, leaving them in miserable conditions”

And they live in such misery, it’s truly heart breaking. We are commercial hotels; we are not prepared, neither psychologically, nor professionally, to be confronted with such distress.

Usually we have to keep the hotel clean and greet clients, that is all. But with these families, we feel guilty when we come back home, leaving them in miserable conditions.


We go back to our children, leaving entire families in a single room, without knowing if they have had the opportunity to eat… Look, here is Mr Covaci, his son is sick. As he has no money to pay for medicine, he went begging to earn a few coins all day long yesterday, persisting until he got the €20 needed to buy the medicine.


It is terrible to have to beg for medicine and treatment. Gee… whether the State lets them live in France, or forces them to leave; they can’t stay here, doomed to live like animals in an increasingly worsening situation.

Of course, the kids get sick: They have to walk 2km on foot every morning to go to school, wearing scraps of clothing hardly suitable for winter weather.

“Parents walk their children to school, then they try to survive”

There is a school just next door to our B&B, but everybody makes as if their situation were transitory, so the boy remains in his former school.

And obviously he has not enough money for public transport. Parents are too ashamed having to beg for money so they don’t take their children with them. Parents walk their children to school, then they try to survive. They are all so kind in this family, it makes me so sad…

And here is Mr Citikian, he can speak Russian, he can speak Turkish, he can speak Armenian… but he can’t speak French. And we don’t speak any of the languages he understands. He is not an idiot, but only I can converse in French and English.

The social workers who come here from time to time, don’t understand him and he doesn’t understand them. There is never a translator who is available, don’t tell me his rights are fully implemented… He was removed from a shelter that was closing.


“They freeze in the building all day”

He doesn’t know how long he and his family will be able to stay here; he doesn’t know if this is the preamble towards a better situation or the last step before sleeping rough on the street. Does he even know he is here because of peak winter emergency welfare and not on a long-term protection scheme?

His wife is very depressed by the situation, she suffered a miscarriage two years ago, in very similar conditions. As she is pregnant, she is very afraid that she will miscarry again. They freeze in the building all day, only visiting the staff just to be out of their tiny room.

We do what we can: we call the food bank, “Médecins sans Frontières” and other NGOs…

Sometimes, after a while, families benefiting from welfare meet people from the neighbourhood. Then when « welfare ends » (meaning the government won’t pay any longer and they must leave the room), neighbours follow up by hosting families or paying for a few more days here.

I offer them the special price we give to the State, half of the usual price… not sure my boss would appreciate my sense of initiative…


“I know that this is wrong and I should be fired”

We understand social workers, they have many households to take care of, they can’t come all the time here. But we, the staff, in the meantime, we meet these people every single day, often accompanying them for the whole day. Last year we had 16 families throughout the year.

This creates bonds. I end up calling the immigration center and lawyers to solve problems, but I have no experience or skills, and am not trained.

I don’t know what has to be said, what has to be done. As this is not a role or responsibility we hold in our jobs, we can’t discuss matters with colleagues, I can talk with nobody about what is happening here.

And when the government decides to stop payment, it is my job to deal with people who have come to know me over the months, who saw me trying to help them; they simply don’t understand after all we have shared together.

The day before yesterday, there was this guy who threw the credit card scanner in my face. Things can get heated at times and tempers frayed.

When neighbours took a family home I hid their belongings in the B&B despite the fact that it is forbidden by the new anti-terror law.

I know that this is wrong and I should be fired, but I don’t see what else I could have done. It is not normal, being forced to choose between a professional failing and participating in giving more misery to the most miserable.


“What is also difficult is that some customers, and even some of the staff members, live in a situation not much better”

In general, when people depart, it’s either very good news or very bad news. And as currently we are only hosting families for the peak winter period, I guess spring will be complicated.

What is also difficult is that some customers, and even some of the staff members, live in a situation not much better.

Look, the lady who just went out, she is pregnant and already mother of a 9-year-old daughter. She is completely lost. She was evicted from her social housing last October and she came to spend her last euros here.

Yesterday, her niece, who has a job, came to pay for the room for two more days. It is clear she will be soon be living a catastrophic situation.

She is not angry with people who are hosted by the State, but it is true she lives in France on a regular basis and she has to pay, whilst her neighbours who are undocumented immigrants are supported by the government, for a room which costs €1.000 per month.

It is complicated to handle… And my colleague, the cleaning agent: she earns €1.200 per month, she lives alone with three kids. It is a permanent struggle to make ends meet.

She has no income support, no allowance, and she cleans rooms for people who live thanks to state funding, without the right to work. She cleans their stuff and room every day. This is nonsense.

No, really, our hotels are not made for that. »

[1] In France hotels and B&B’s are considered as a service regulated by trade law, there are no protection against eviction as they exist in a dwelling with a tenure status. The room is not a home: you don’t pay, you don’t enter, day by day.

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