Housing and Humanism in France : the Story of a Beginning

In June 1994, we started in Le Havre (France) a branch of Habitat et Humanisme (Housing and Humanism). Its aim was to provide housing for those who are most deprived, a fine programme, but one however that was very complex.

Twenty years later, we met together, all of those involved in that foundation which has continued its work and is well organised today. 
Understanding involves going back over our history; it is in a way the history of this group that met in the premises of Habitat and Humanism, in Le Havre, on the 27th of May 2014. 
It is a long story beginning in the 1980s when, alongside Claude Huret, a Worker Priest of the Mission de France, a study group comprising Christians and Muslims was formed. The aim was first of all to help the Bishop and the Imam in Le Havre to find a place of worship for Muslims and then to study the questions of insertion and housing for the immigrant workers who lacked proper accommodation. These were meetings where, with the Worker Priests, there was a kind of ’mix’ between Christians and Muslims. Through the volunteers and activists who came via ASTI (an association for support to immigrant workers), APAAM (an association for the reception of immigrants, with literacy classes for them), AHAM (a Le Havre association for the reception of migrants) and some local politicians, a movement was going to take shape in the development of local community life, and also with interventions concerning housing in the neighbourhoods.
For us, what marked this event, was the friendly and creative atmosphere with a spiritual basis, over and beyond religions, that brought us together. It was the Faith, that is, service to human beings and the will to act in the service of persons who are disadvantaged. The network of associations outflanked the local authorities, e.g. with the white paper that denounced the practices of the OPHLM (moderate-rent public housing office). That is how various bodies came into being: the Housing Fund set up later by the "Besson Law" and then the first Social Housing Office; these were the first to organise subletting for families that nobody wanted.
So, it is no surprise that in this context the "Housing and Humanism" project appealed to us: the creation of social housing thanks to 1/3 of the cost provided by the future tenant, 1/3 by grants and 1/3 by loans through a fund; this was with the idea of creating a social mix and providing accompaniment for families being re-housed. Bernard Devert, founder of Habitat et Humanisme at Lyon, came to present the project at Le Havre. 
Many people were won over by the dynamism and the economic and social project. With the team that knew one another at ASTI for several years, it was decided to set up a branch of Habitat and Humanism in Upper Normandy, at Rouen and Le Havre, as well as at Evreux. Whereas the movement is usually led by men, executives in the business world, banking and real estate, it was above all the women, women who were militant and committed in the social sphere, who led it at the beginning. 
 photo : collectif Item
As I had just retired from work, I was told: "You will be able to give your time to this project.." In the team there were both professionals and volunteers; this was enriching and not always easy to manage. We were particularly impressed by one volunteer, Denis. He was a property manager and was outstanding for investing financial products: He used to say: "Housing and Humanism reconciles the social and the financial". Sadly, he died too soon. The little team used to meet every Tuesday for a meal in the Association premises and it was there that everything was debated and decided: what property to acquire, which family to choose. Very soon we recruited help through a ’youth employment’ scheme and Magali became our secretary for several years. 
To what point do we take risks? 20 years later, the question is still there. The incumbent president of the Le Havre branch, present at the meeting, recalled that some of these families are still there, in difficult social situations. Nevertheless, there have been success cases like as that of Thierry who had been homeless. I was leader of that team for nine years, until I went to Brussels, when Jean-Marcel replaced me. André, who was present at the meeting, said that "my behaviour and my attitude were characteristic of the LSA formation in the accompaniment of persons who are extremely frail". It touched me to have been recognised in that work as a Little Sister of the Assumption.
It is true that André has known the LSA for a long time: first of all through his wife’s aunt, Sr Colombe-Marie, during a visit to the community at Sfax when passing through Tunisia, and then at the health centre in Macon. It was there that he knew Sr Claude who, with two other sisters, passed the last years of her life in an old people’s home at Grugny near Rouen and whom he visited several times. Finally, he met us again at Housing and Humanism. This is what he himself wrote: "Thanks to my commitment in the Housing and Humanism movement, two new Little Sisters appeared in my life: Michèle, who participated like me in the "Donors’ committee", which has received from the committee the responsibility for the charter of the good use of the money that is collected; and the second is Marie, who came to Lyon with Le Havre families who had been re-housed for the twentieth anniversary of the movement." 
All this has been written so that the humble beginnings will not be forgotten at the time when the Movement is preparing to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2015. 
Sr Marie
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