Down and out in Prague: emergency aid offered, but long-term provision lacking

Photo: Filip Jandourek

After an unusually mild start of winter, the Czech Republic has been gripped by a freezing weather and temperatures are likely to remain below zero in the days to come. Among the people most threatened by the cold snap are the country’s homeless and municipalities and NGOs around the country have already started providing various kinds of temporary shelters and services for them.

Pavla Vopeláková, photo: Czech Televsion
I spoke to Pavla Vopeláková from the Czech branch of the Czech Salvation Army about the situation of the country’s homeless but I first asked her what kind of measures they have already taken:

“Of course that winter is the most crucial time of the year. Temperatures are really freezing and therefore we are opening our winter crisis shelters. Our services, the hostel, the night-shelter and the day-centre are commonly open throughout the year, and we also have street-workers.

“But when the winter is approaching we are increasing the capacities and we are also increasing the number of people working in the streets, who are actively searching for the people who are still in the streets, who are living rough and are really in danger of losing life because of the frost.”

I guess in this weather your facilities stay open throughout the whole day…

“The services are also open during the day, of course. We have the day centre, where people can come in between nine and ten and stay until the evening. And when the weather is freezing, as it is right now, we have something called a seat-share program. It means that the people don’t need to leave, they can stay in the centre throughout the night.”

Would you say that all the homeless people are interested in the services that you are providing?

“I have to say that when it is so cold, most of the people, who are aware of the services, come to our centres, because the situation is really serious and they are in the danger of losing their lives.”

“When the winter is approaching we are increasing our capacities and we are also increasing the number of people working in the streets.”

“But one of the services that we are providing, as I said, is street-work, which means that our people are actively searching for those, who are still in the streets, who might not realise how dangerous it is. They are bringing them to our facilities or telling them about the possibilities they have. So there is no need for anyone to stay in the streets in this cold weather.”

And do the people have to meet certain requirements in order to be able to use your facilities?

“The requirements are very low. We call them the low-threshold services, especially in winter. Of course they cannot be drunk or violent, because there are many people staying in the building at the same time. “Sometimes we can have up to 200 people in the same building, with maybe only two members of staff, so we have to take into consideration the safety of the others.”

You have also been cooperating with the city authorities. Do you think they are doing enough to tackle the problem?

“We have to say that the cooperation with the Prague municipality is absolutely amazing this year. It has been increasing and there are enough facilities. At the moment, there is no need for anyone to stay on the street in this bad weather.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
“Municipalities have also been increasing their services, there is a mobile ambulance going around. So if there are people still on the street, they can be contacted and then they are sent to a facility which is available and has a free capacity. So the cooperation with the municipalities and other NGOs in the city is working really nicely.”

So how serious is currently the problem of homelessness in the Czech Republic? And how has it changed in recent years?

“I think the problem is that there is not enough follow-up accommodation. According to our estimates there are around 35,000 homeless people around the country. Many of them are living in different institutions but there are still many people living rough, in dormitories or unsuitable accommodation.

“We foresee that what needs to happen is the law on social housing to be approved so people have a right for housing and they can really go, after a short stay in a hostel, or even directly to social housing where social help is provided to them. This way won’t be dependent on the social system as such.”

Who would you say are your typical clients these days? Who are the people who are at the highest risk of homelessness? And has that changed in any way in recent years?

“Yes, it has changed pretty rapidly. At the end of the 1990s there were only about ten percent of female population within the homeless people. But based on our research that we carried out last year the percentage is growing and there are currently 20 percent of women within the homeless population, which means that every fifth homeless person is a woman.

“When we look at the homeless in Prague, we can say that at least 50 percent of them come from other regions.”

“On average we can say that a typical homeless person is a middle aged man or woman without a job, with really low income, with hardly any family connection, some have a mental illness or a hidden mental illness, and therefore it is really difficult for them to sustain a normal life.

“Other people who are most threatened by homelessness are single parents, or parents with more than four or five children, elderly people who become single or become widowed at the later age.”

How difficult is it for them to break out of their situation?

“It is quite demanding, especially because there is a lack of financially affordable housing. And I am going back to the necessity of sufficient amount of flats for these people, because the lack of finance or the lack of financially affordable housing is the largest problem.

“Most of the people who come to us are able to live on their own. They might need a little support from our social workers, but generally speaking, they are capable of looking after themselves, if they have a small flat where they can live in on their own.”

Where do these people mostly come from? Are they moving to the big cities, especially during the winter season?

“I think generally speaking the capitals, even when we look at other capitals in Europe, always attract the majority of the homeless people and we can say that more than ten or 15 percent live there.

Photo: Michal Záboj
“It can be anonymity, it can be the dream that life in the capital can be better, that there are more options in the capital, it is really difficult to say. But when we look at the homeless in Prague, we can say that at least 50 percent of them come from other regions.

“When there is a possibility we always try to send them back to the smaller city because there are more options for them, especially linked to the follow-up care and to the housing. But we do not refuse anybody, so whoever comes to our door is welcome. We try to assess the situation and provide the person with the right type of aid.”