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Tour Paris streets with knowledgeable homeless

PARIS -- What better way to visit the streets of Paris than with people who have lived in them, literally.

Meet Vincent, a 39-year-old homeless man who was down and out six months ago but now squires tourists through little-known lanes as he tells their stories, past and present.

Despite the rain, several visitors — Australian, Dutch, Taiwanese among them — stand rapt as Vincent, who preferred not to give his last name, recounts a 19th-century revolt against the government that played out in some of the cobblestone streets on his two-hour tour.

“I'm discovering the real Paris,” said Marco, a 28-year-old Mexican on a solo tour around the world. “I'm making friends and having fun. It's a perfect combination.”

The program was launched a year ago by Alternative Urbaine, a four-member start-up that aims to bring homeless back from the fringes of society.

Its motto: tourism “should have a positive effect on society.”

And with Paris one of the world's most visited cities — more than 27 million per year, according to the Paris mayor's office, or 12 times the city's population — the French capital abounds with potential.

Homelessness has long been a problem in the city, but the situation today is very different than it was for the old-time vagrants or colorful characters immortalized in George Orwell's 1933 classic, “Down and Out in London and Paris.”

Shelters Cannot Cope

People begging, living in tents, on sleeping bags or under cardboard sheets is now a common sight after homeless numbers spiked dramatically, a situation blamed on the economic crisis and a sharp rise in housing prices.

Since 2001, the number of those homeless in the capital has increased 84 percent, according to the city-run Paris Urban Planning Agency. Their latest figures from 2012 say more than 28,000 people had no fixed residence — with a big increase in women and entire families — while shelters or emergency accommodation could not cope with demand.

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