Down and out in Prague and Pilsen: sociologists map homeless

Photo: official facebook of the HOBOhemia project

Sociologists from the Czech Academy of Sciences are carrying out a unique survey of the homeless communities in Prague and Pilsen. The HOBOhemia project is the first comparative research on homelessness in the Czech Republic and focuses on previously neglected topics such as specific timing of the activities of the homeless. It also uses some less traditional research methods, such as GPS tracking, and invites the homeless to take active part in collecting the data.

Petr Vašát, photo: official website of the Sociological institute AV ČR
I spoke to Petr Vašát, HOBOhemia’s main investigator, and I first asked him about the name for the project:

“The title refers to the specific areas in American cities in the past, where the so-called hoboes concentrated during winters, while in summers they were travelling around the country ad building the railway network.”

What is the aim of your project?

“The project started in January 2015 and will finish at the end of 2017. Generally speaking, its goal is to describe dynamics of homelessness in two Czech cities, Prague and Pilsen. Basically, we have four main goals. The first one is to identify the characteristics of homeless people.

“The second goal is to describe spatial and temporal mobility in urban space in those two cities. The third one is to identify places in public space they inhabit on everyday basis. And the last one is to describe their specific time perception and its origin.”

Photo: official facebook of the HOBOhemia project
As far as I know, you are using some less traditional research methods…

“I think our project is unique in many ways. First of all, it is a comparative research. As I said we are looking at two cities, while similar projects usually target only one city.

“We are trying to find out what these two cities have in common and which conditions are specific for each of the localities. We are also using several innovative methods, such as GPS tracking, photo-voice and respondent driven sampling.

What does that mean? Can you be more specific?

“Photo voice is an interesting method which tries to engage the homeless into the research. Basically we give them disposable cameras and some basic advice on how to use them. They take pictures of their ordinary day and afterwards we sit down and talk about what is going on in the pictures. It gives them a chance to see their lives from external perspective. It is quite useful if you want to study relationships between the homelessness and public space.

“We are using several innovative methods, such as GPS tracking, photo-voice and respondent driven sampling.”

“Regarding the respondent-driven sampling, it is similar to the classical method called ‘snowballing’. At the beginning, we interviewed six people and we gave them coupons, which they were supposed to give to their friends in the streets.

“Then we would interview their friends and repeat the same procedure once again. Overall, we would like to do about 300 interviews overall.”

So basically the homeless participate in the project and they also help you contact other respondents…

“Yes, they record things themselves because they get some money after the interviews and they are also rewarded for recruiting other people.”

Was it difficult to approach the homeless community? How willing were they to cooperate?

Photo: official facebook of the HOBOhemia project
“It was quite easy, because we cooperate with several organisations here in Prague as well as in Pilsen and they help us to contact respondents. I was also involved in a long-term field research in the past so I had a number of contacts and friends from that time.”

So what are the outcomes of the project so far? And is there something that has taken you by surprise?

“We found out that the size and number of citizens in a city is absolutely crucial. It affects for instance social organisation of the homeless communities as well as their social strategies. So this is something we want to focus on in the future.

“We were surprised by many situations. For instance yesterday a man came to be interviewed but we found out that he is not part of our target group, because he lives in a flat. He told us that he came because he wanted to help the homeless. For me it is kind of a promise that the situation is not as bad as it sometimes seems.”

You told me that it is not common to carry out a comparative survey. So what would you say are the biggest differences between the homeless communities in Prague and Pilsen?

Photo: Krstýna Maková
“I would say that Pilsen has several bigger communities while Prague is more fragmented and more competitive. We also identified different space mobility. In Pilsen everything is concentrated to one place, while in Prague people are moving from one place to another.”

Would you say that life is easier for the homeless is easier in smaller cities?

“It depends. In a smaller city you are always recognised, the police know your face, while Prague is more anonymous. I think it depends on the individuals, but I would say that Prague is tougher for the homeless.

You expressed a hope that the situation is not as bad as it seems. Would you say the situation of homelessness in the Czech Republic has improved over the years?

“Not really. In the 1990s, the dominant perception was charity oriented. Nowadays it is more about repression, so I would say it is more difficult for the people to be on the street.”

So how serious would you say the situation is at the moment?

“I think it is very important to focus on prevention, especially in cases of runaway kids and children living in institutions.”

“I think it is quite serious because the numbers of the homeless keep increasing and we still don’t have the Social Housing Act. I think it is very important to focus on prevention, especially in cases of runaway kids and children living in institutions. So we have to focus on this.”

In your project have you focused only on the homeless or also on people who might potentially become homeless?

“We want to focus also on the so called hidden and potential homelessness. I think in case of hidden homelessness we were quite successful. We have got some respondents from the gay prostitution community.

“The potential homelessness is more difficult to trace. Our survey is trying to target potential homelessness as well, but the results will be quite limited. At the moment we only have about 20 people.”

You have also mentioned the Social Housing Act. Would you say that this is one of the main problems in tackling the issue of homelessness?

“It is definitely an important one, but there are other issues. We have to get jobs for the homeless. There is for instance a segment of older people who were educated during communism and now they have to take factory jobs, which are paid very badly. So when talking about the Social Housing Act we have to think about other issues such as jobs and social services and so on.”

Photo: Honza Ptáček, ČRo
Finally, what do you hope to achieve with your project and what will be the outcomes?

“It is an academic project so we hope we will publish several articles and hopefully a book as well. But I would also like to present several recommendation based on our results and I think it might be helpful in various agendas. So far we are in the middle of the project so we will see what the surveys will bring.”

Are some of the results accessible for the public?

“You can find some examples on our website, and we also have a plan to organize some exhibition in the future.”