Homelessness is very visible in the city of Prague. Thousands of tourists flocking from attraction to attraction barely obscure the many people lying in the street looking for help. Unlike other European cities, the homeless people will rarely solicit you for your money – instead mostly opting to take a reserved, self-effacing pose on their hands and knees, with their head against the pavement- akin to begging for mercy as opposed to begging for change.
While homelessness figures in the Czech Republic are below the European average, there are still thousands of men and women without a place to stay in the country. In Prague alone the official figure stands at around 4,000 homeless people. However, there are a lot of difficulties in counting this at-risk population and estimates of an actual figure reach as high as 15,000 while the capital city only has 600 overnight beds for their homeless. A significant number of policy in makers in the Czech Republic still express doubts as to whether it is necessary to get involved in tackling this issue. Fortunately, there are a multitude of organisations working in the complex area of improving the lives of homeless people in a varied and manifold number of ways.
There is a large stigma and culture of shame associated with being homeless in the city. This perception is changing as the city’s inhabitants become more aware that homelessness can happen to anyone following the floods in 2002 and 2013, which resulted in the evacuation of thousands of people. Flooding, however, is not the only way Czech people have been losing their homes. According to Jitka Modlitbová, from the Unit of Social Housing and Social Inclusion within the the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, homelessness is a complex issue which can rarely be pinpointed to one cause. Exacerbated by the recent economic crisis, the risk factors that trigger homelessness include debts, family conflicts, release from institution care such as mental hospitals or prisons, substance abuse, physical abuse, labour and housing tendencies as well as deficiencies in the education system.
The Ministry of Labour have published recent reports on the topic of homelessness including the Social Inclusion Strategy 2014-2020 and The Concept of Preventing and Tackling Homelessness Issues in the Czech Republic until 2020. Social exclusion is a much broader issue than homelessness, but according to these documents the percentage of people at risk of exclusion in the country is 15.3% (1,580,000 people). Homelessness is seen as extreme social exclusion and the state is required to help these people as the right to housing is expressly entrenched in international documents to which the Czech Republic is a signatory.
Currently, there exists an insufficiently used “housing with support” method, as well as a lack of housing prevention tools such as debt counselling, eviction prevention and legislation to address social housing. However, they intend to introduce more housing, loss prevention tools and evaluate Housing First schemes. Housing First is the placement of individuals and families to stable, permanent housing as the primary strategy for ending homelessness with the support of social and other services.
Due to economic development and rent deregulation in the past years, the number of individuals and families living in sub-standard housing has been on the rise. According to Ms. Modlitbová the number of homeless people is growing. The estimated number of potential homeless people living in the Czech Republic is up to 100,000 people.
According to the Concept “the basis for finding an effective solution to homelessness consists in understanding the issues of homelessness and in the knowledge of possible solutions to such issues. However the issues of homelessness in the Czech Republic are marked by a knowledge deficit on the part of both the general public and policy-makers.”
“Homelessness is definitely a priority for the government. The government has said they will put a social housing bill in place, so we are working on it very hard and we are trying to put it in place this year,” according to Ms Modlitbová.
The Ministry create and prepare the national strategies for social inclusion and co-operate with the European Union. Linda Sokačová, Head of the Unit of Social Housing and Social Inclusion, says they also “discuss with other ministries about strategical tools in the area of social inclusion and tackling homelessness. We prepare draft law on social housing, and we also try to recommend the tools and the strategies to make the situation better.”
There are several non-profit organisations working in Prague for homeless people. They operate a number of social services from street outreach, day centres, healthcare, night shelters and long-term accommodation. Naděje (Hope) began 25 years ago and is one of the largest organisations working with the homeless inhabitants of Prague. Jan Kadlec, Regional Director, told me they have about 3,000 registered homeless clients in Prague every year.
“But we also provide anonymous social services for others mostly during street work or in day centres. We have 40 beds in dormitories and 145 in shelters and we have 13 beds in social housing. 300 people come to our day centres daily. ”
“During winter the city of Prague has a project that we are involved in. Part of the winter project is that the street program works during the night. Last winter approximately 80-100 more beds were provided in Prague by Naděje. Day centres are also open during the night in winter and there street workers will come with clients who are on the street and they will be taken care of there,” he said.
Mr Kadlec outlined some problems in tackling the issue of homelessness: “We can say the public has a negative attitude to homeless people and drug addicts but during the past two or three years the situation has got better in the city of Prague. The problem we see is that the members of city boards are not inclined to help people. The city knows it is necessary to arrange social services but when they choose an area the local people and developers are against it. Most people know it is necessary to have such services but they don’t want it in their area.”
Charitas – St Theresa Shelter Home offers 42 overnight beds (31 men, 11 women) and 21 beds in long-term accommodation (14 men, seven women) for a maximum period, defined by legislation, of up to one year. In the shelter, homeless people can get food, buy affordable clothes and take showers. According to Deputy Director of the shelter Jana Ivaničová there “is a very big problem with accommodation and housing in the Czech Republic because it is very expensive and the minimum wage is very low. So many people are near to poverty.”
“The problem is money. There is no social housing in the Czech Republic and our government is trying to solve it but it is quite slow,” she added.
The shelter’s staff offers many services including social and legal counselling for clients in crisis situations.
According to Stanislav Fiala, the Director of the shelter, “in Prague the approximate number of homeless people is 4000 but there are only 600 beds. So those clients who co-operate with homeless shelters – they circulate. In our shelter they can stay 15 nights per month, no more. So after they go to the Salvation Army or other shelters. They make a circle.”
The shelter’s social workers co-operate with the clients to improve their social situation – to find work and accommodation, to improve their health, and to recover from living on the street. Charitas works with their homeless clients to create individual plans that cater to their own wants and needs, for example obtaining a passport or getting necessary surgery.
Pragulic is a social enterprise headed by Tereza Jurečkova. They offer alternative tours of the city given by homeless tour guides. Ms Jurečkova feels the perception of homeless people in the city is changing due to the visibility of the problem in the city centre but “we do not have enough social services and support for NGOs.”
According to Ms Jurečkova, the government “do nothing” but are testing and trying to put through legislation to “solve the social housing/Housing First issue”.
She explained that 80% of homeless people in Prague are men with separation from partners being a large cause of their homelessness alongside problems with addictions. She also said many have prison or criminal records which prevents them from returning to work as 90% of employers will request a criminal record: “if you have one – you can’t work.”
“There is a perception that if you are a homeless person you can find a job but you are just lazy and it is your choice but we’re trying to change that,” she said.
Ms Jurečkova says the number of homeless people in Prague is getting worse, and this is supported by the media. “It is hard to count. What has been counted is 4,000 homeless people but our estimate is around 10,000 – 15,000”
Nový Prostor (New Area) is a street newspaper, inspired by Big Issue, which is sold by approximately 100 homeless people in Prague. Jakub Marek is the leader of a centre in the city. He explained “homeless sellers come to buy the paper for around 25CZK (€1) and sell it for around 50CZK (€2). This business is about their freedom; where they want to sell and how long they want to sell it for and how many they aim to sell.”
HOBOhemia is a research project of the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences. Its goal is to describe the time-space dynamics of homelessness in cities of Prague and the much smaller city of Pilsen. Mgr. Petr Vašát, Ph.D is the principal investigator of the project.
The first stage was in-depth interviews with more than 50 homeless people about their lives. They then used a process called photo voicing where 30 homeless people were given disposable cameras to document their days, resulting in almost 1000 photographs. They also used GPS trackers to map the movements of homeless during a week. The research is not completed, but they are studying and comparing the lives of homeless people in the two cities.
Although they are still in the middle of the research, some early remarks can be made: “The main result of this is the size of the city is a key role in everydayness and everything, because in Pilsen everything is more community based. There is one or two huge communities co-operating, everybody knows each other, whereas in Prague it’s more separated. It’s more individual and more competitive.”
He said there are many different ways different homeless people spend their time and through their qualitative research it is not possible to identify clear patterns that can be applied to all homeless people.
Alexandra Dolezelova is the Director of Jako doma and of the founding members of the organisation back in August 2012. This is a small team of people involved with working with homeless women in the city. Ms Dolezelova says that around 25% of homeless people in the city are women, but they are not very visible as they hide their presence on the street.
“It’s difficult to calculate because women often don’t get into the numbers,” she said.
According to Ms Dolezelova, the social services are often not gender sensitive to the different needs of women. She says women who come from violent backgrounds may not want to mix in a shelter with men, and often women encounter sexist speech or sexual harassment. Jako doma works with and tries to educate social services on the different needs women have.
“The statistic of 25% of homeless people are women is not seen in centres. It is mainly men. This might mean women do not want to go there. There is no day centre for only women,” she said.
Alexandra stressed the partnership aspect: “It is different to social services were there is a hierarchy between the social works and a ‘client’. We work as a partnership and empower the women. We give them a voice.”
Jako doma has debt counsellors and two female therapists and holds group therapy sessions. Some of the homeless women Jako doma have helped are now working as peer-outreach workers to contact more women in need.
The group also work with organisations such as ROZKOŠ bez RIZIKA (Bliss without Risk) which helps vulnerable people in particular women working in the sex industry as this is sometimes a source of income for homeless women. Alexandra also told me about their homeless theatre productions aimed towards discussing violence against women and showing the various reasons that can cause a woman to be homeless.
Jako doma’s main project is “Cooks Without Homes” where homeless women cook vegan food and sell it in various places around Prague. They also intend to open a bistro where the women employed there would go through debt counselling to work towards declaring personal bankruptcy. The Cooks Without Homes project is a source of income for the women but also acts as a place where they can grow their self-esteem and offer the general public a different, destigmatising perspective of homeless people than the negative stories in the media. You can support Jako doma’s bistro crowdfunding project here.
Homelessness is a complex issue and the problem is getting worse. It can be seen that there are many organisations trying to come up with strong and creative solutions to the crisis. The current lack of social housing is an issue that came up quite often as one of the most serious problems. Ultimately, destigmatising and communicating with the people affected by homelessness is one of the key methods of solving this extreme social exclusion. As Ms. Dolezelova says, “We have these documents such as The Concept of Preventing and Tackling Homelessness but no one ever asks homeless people what they think.”