In 1956, Joseph Wresinski, a Catholic priest, became the chaplain to 250 homeless families living in an emergency housing camp near Paris. “The families I met there,” he would recall, “made me think of the poverty of my mother. The children could have been my brothers, my sister, or me, forty years earlier.” Determined to end this poverty, Wresinski launched a community development project with these families. He later said, “The families in the camp inspired everything I undertook.”
Other men and women from different backgrounds and beliefs came to work with Wresinski, and the project grew into the ATD Fourth World Movement. Those who came to help formed a new type of non-denominational “Volunteer Corps.” The “Volunteers” lived in the camp and made a full-time, long-term commitment.
From the outset, ATD Fourth World’s work has targeted three priorities: learning from the most disadvantaged families, understanding how they become trapped in persistent poverty, and planning and developing projects with them. Joseph Wresinski created the name “Fourth World” to honor the dignity of these families and their refusal to submit to poverty.
ATD Fourth World Volunteers started programs with poor families in other European countries and, in 1964, came to the United States to work in New York City as part of the War on Poverty. In 1990, the first team came to New Orleans; in 1995 to Appalachia; and in 2012 to New Mexico and Boston. ATD Fourth World Movement is also an active member of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, regularly bringing people living in poverty from all over the world to meet with diplomats and civil society to share their experiences and ideas.
On October 17, 1987, Joseph Wresinski dedicated a commemorative stone on the Human Rights Plaza in Paris, near the Eiffel Tower. In 1992, the United Nations recognized October 17 as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. In 1996, a replica of the stone was laid in the gardens of the United Nations in New York City.
In every country there are people who do not share in the benefits society offers. From childhood on, poverty damages their health and jeopardizes their chances to learn. They are denied educational opportunities and access to decent work. They live in overcrowded or unsanitary conditions. Many become homeless. If the most disadvantaged families are to be reached, anti-poverty and development programs must make a special effort to include them. ATD Fourth World projects build on the strength of these families, and especially on the hopes the parents have for their children.
Joseph Wresinski was born to immigrant parents in a poor neighborhood of Angers, France. He grew up in a family which suffered from deep poverty and social exclusion. In 1946, he was ordained as a priest and served in industrial and rural parishes where, right from the beginning, he related to the most deprived families.
In 1956, Father Joseph Wresinski was assigned by his bishop to be chaplain to 250 families placed in a emergency housing camp in Noisy-le-Grand, near Paris. The families lived in huts built in a muddy field. He said about his years in Noisy-le-Grand: “The families in that camp have inspired everything I have undertaken for their liberation. They took hold of me, they lived within me, they carried me forward, they pushed me to found the Movement with them.”
In 1957, Father Joseph Wresinkski and the families of the camp founded the first association, later to become the ATD Fourth World Movement. They replaced soup kitchens and the distribution of old clothes with a library, a kindergarten, and a chapel. Joined by the first few Volunteers, he soon created a research institute on extreme poverty, bringing together researchers from different countries and disciplines.
Since ATD Fourth World’s beginning, Father Joseph’s own experience as a child in a poverty-stricken family and his daily contacts with very poor families and members of the Movement’s Volunteer Corps have inspired its development.
He always aimed to unite all sections of society around those most excluded by persistent poverty. With this goal, he met leaders of state, churches, and international bodies from all over the world. He believed that every man or woman he met represented a chance for the families who were the most left out and he was determined that ATD Fourth World would remain open to people of all cultures, faiths, and races.
His appointment to France’s Economic and Social Council in 1979 was a significant step in his quest for official representation for families living in persistent poverty. With the publication of the Wresinski Report in 1987, he succeeded in gaining their recognition as partners in society.
On October 17, 1987, in the presence of 100,000 people from every socio-economic background and continent, Father Joseph Wresinski unveiled a commemorative stone at the Human Rights Plaza in Paris, which reads in part, “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.”
Since then the commemorative stone has become a rallying point for people from all walks of life. They gather to bear witness to the most vulnerable people in the world and to make a personal commitment to join forces with them in abolishing poverty and social exclusion. The United Nations declared October 17 the “International Day for the Eradication of Poverty” in 1992. In a number of countries people gather on the 17th of each month to honor people who suffer from extreme poverty and to renew their commitment to them.