Having a wash outside the home. A survey of users of City of Paris free public bathing facilities (bains-douches)

© Documentation personnelle de l’auteure

Paris has 16 free public bathing facilities, for a total of 500 private individual showers.

These facilities and their users, surveyed in 2017, constitute an interesting case study of a public service that provides people who cannot bathe at home with access to hot water and privacy.

Public bains-douches [shower-baths] were initially opened in Europe at the same time as social housing; they were a European-wide experiment driven by new conceptions of hygiene, comfort and cleanliness. Since then, these facilities have developed in quite different ways over time and space. New forms have appeared, combining free bathing facilities with other types of activities (cultural, social, artistic), and the buildings themselves have changed uses, disappeared, and been replaced by new facilities. Meanwhile, the French parliament has passed a law recognizing “the right to water”.

Over a thousand users questioned

It was in this context, and following two years of participant observation by students in a Licence degree sociology program, that the project of a questionnaire survey of Paris’s public bathing facility users was developed. To begin with, surveying people in these facilities required adapting to extraordinary population diversity. The questionnaire was issued in five languages—English, Arabic, Bulgarian, Farsi, Polish—in addition to French. The survey itself, designed in close collaboration with INED’s Statistics and Surveys Department, aimed to improve our knowledge of who uses public bathing facilities and how. It applies well-established methodologies first developed for surveys of homeless services users. Prior to the distribution of the questionnaires, approximately 60 semi-directive interviews were conducted in 2014 and 2015.

After the protocol and questionnaire were submitted to tests developed by INED’s Surveys Department, the survey itself was conducted from January 15 to February 15, 2017. Each public bathing facility was surveyed five times for 3 hours at a time by a pair of interviewers; 1,084 questionnaires were collected.

One in four users lives rough

The data enable us to distinguish the following strong features in the population that uses these facilities: many were born abroad (59%), and the share of women users is low (9%). While the proportion of long-term users is quite high (45% have been going to bains-douches for at least 5 years), many are newcomers (22% have been going for less than a year). Many users either have a home or are being accommodated in someone else’s (58%); in fact, the proportion of users living rough is only 24%. However, 67% of the total user population (housed and homeless combined) have no shower in the place they usually live. A considerable share of respondents do not live alone (approximately 43%), and nearly half of users have a least one child. As many as 70% have attended high school and/or a higher education institution. The survey method (a self-administered questionnaire) has something to do with this figure. Nonetheless, this high percentage suggests the need to move beyond the notion that this is a population with little education and little in the way of educational attainment. Most users have worked in the past, but approximately four in five were jobless at the time of the survey. That being said, the border between having work and not, having a job and not, is relatively porous. In fact, the survey reveals that users’ income seldom comes solely from work: those with work income almost all received welfare benefits at least once in the survey year, and 37% live exclusively on welfare. Last, despite this population’s general precariousness, half of bain-douche users do not use any other free service, a finding that denotes the specificity of its poverty.

Public bathing facilities in Paris, a haven of hospitality

The findings confirm that bains-douches are welcoming, caring places: a majority of users have a highly favorable view of them, and often express gratitude for access to hot water and a private space generally experienced as safe, clean, and welcoming. Respondents also say they are well treated—with a few exceptions, respect and a sense of hospitality seem to reign in these places. However, though manifestations of solidarity have been found among users, the general rule is “civil inattention,” a characteristic of public spaces and one that affects how well they operate. Still, the social violence users feel has more to do with stigmatization than violent acts: few users report such acts or episodes.   

This survey has received support from the Université de Paris 8-Saint-Denis, the iPOPs, CHR-LAVUE and Passages research laboratories (the second also at Paris 8-Saint Denis and the third part of the CNRS), the Fondation Abbé Pierre for housing underprivileged persons, the office of Dominique Versini at the Paris City Hall, and PUCA (Plan Urbanisme Construction et Architecture) of the French Ministry for the Environment and Housing. INED, meanwhile, made the whole project possible by hosting Claire Lévy-Vroelant from September 2015 to February 2017.

This quantitative survey describes the current situation in a specific urban context, thus revealing the need for a more wide-ranging approach both in terms of case studies and methodologies. Other investigations are necessary if we want to understand how public bathing facilities offer responses to the changes underway not only in today’s Paris but also in other cities throughout France and Europe. Those changes include the transformation of the welfare state, the emergence of new vulnerabilities such as lack of water, the increasing resonance of the “right to water,” and the increasing number of private and public initiatives to effectively mutualize and share common goods.

Our research team also keeps a Carnets Hypothèses [Hypothesis notebook] on our work in progress.

Contact: Claire Lévy-Vroelant and Lucie Bony

Online from October 2019