A severe housing crisis
1947 - 1948
Abbé Pierre moved into the house in Neuilly-Plaisance, which he soon used to give people somewhere to shelter and meet.
In winter, its doors were open to worker-priests, seminarians, young and adult activists, scouts, MRP members and so on.
In summer, it housed the international youth hostel, which gained official youth hostel status in 1949. It was set up to reconcile the young people of Europe whose fathers had fought in the Second World War. Abbé Pierre called it “Emmaus”, in reference to a Palestinian village where a small group of people who were in despair regained hope.
Abbé Pierre met Georges Legay, who became the first companion at Neuilly-Plaisance.
More people knocked on the door to the Emmaus house in Neuilly-Plaisance, giving rise to the first community.
Like Georges, other people soon came asking for help at Neuilly-Plaisance. Thus, the first community was created “when men who had become aware of their privileged situation and social responsibilities in the face of injustice and men who no longer had any reason to live crossed paths and decided to combine forces and take action together to help each other and come to the aid of those who were suffering”.
Rather than providing them with the means to live, Abbé Pierre gave them a reason to live, paradoxically putting those who had lost everything in a position to be able to give.
The first family was accommodated at Neuilly-Plaisance.
The companion-builders built the first set of accommodation for families.
With help from the first companions and young people living at the youth hostel, the building of this accommodation marked the beginning of the work of the Emmaus companion-builders. In the midst of a housing crisis, other homeless families soon turned to Abbé Pierre for help.
To survive and continue with their action, the companion-builders became rag-pickers.
1951 - 1953
The companions built accommodation for 141 families, whilst Abbé Pierre attempted to put pressure on the authorities to deal with the housing crisis.
Abbé Pierre began giving frequent speeches about the housing crisis from 1953.
In December 1953, he asked a friend, MRP member Léo Hamon to table an amendment during the debate on the buildings budget for one billion francs to be used for emergency accommodation. However the amendment was adjourned indefinitely.
On 1 February 1954, Abbé Pierre made his famous radio appeal, which set off the "uprising of kindness". It received a huge amount of media coverage, both in France and other countries.
When a baby froze to death in January, he wrote an open letter to Maurice Lemaire, the Minister for Housing. A woman who was evicted from her home froze to death on the street in Paris. Outraged, Abbé Pierre launched a radio appeal on 1 February 1954: “My friends, come and help me.”
Immediately after it was broadcast, donations flooded into hotel Rochester in Paris. In the evening, up to 2000 people gathered at the Pantheon to take the rough sleepers to emergency accommodation centres.
The government finally recognised the need for emergency housing. The Council of Ministers immediately adopted a programme for 12,000 emergency houses.
On 30 April, Abbé Pierre inaugurated the first set of houses in Plessis-Trevise with Maurice Lemaire in attendance.