Novy Prostor's Dagmar Kocmankova - personal experience of homelessness


Rob Cameron's guest on this week's One on One is Dagmar Kocmankova, co-founder of the street magazine Novy Prostor. The magazine is the Czech equivalent of the Big Issue - the British street paper sold by homeless people. Novy Prostor was first published, under the name "Patron", in 1999, and since then has gone from strength to strength.

How did you become involved in helping the homeless Dagmar?

"I didn't plan it. When my boyfriend and partner went to the UK a few years ago, he brought back a copy of Big Issue to Prague. We were looking at it at home, and we found that this project could fit us together, because he's a journalist and I was studying social work, so we thought we could create this project together. So it was like this."

So there was nothing in your own life which led you to become involved in helping the homeless? You were never homeless yourself.

"Well actually I was homeless. I had some problems with my mum. We couldn't understand each other, so once I ran away. I was on the street for one year, then I came back to my mum and everything was OK. So I feel that I understand these people, very much."

How big a problem is homelessness in the Czech Republic?

"I think it's a big problem, also because many people from Slovakia are coming here to find a place to work and even if they don't get a job they stay here because they think there are more opportunities here than in Slovakia. So last year, when there was the first count of homeless people in Prague, they counted 4,500 people living on the streets."

Tell me a little about how Novy Prostor works.

"We really try to bring the know-how of the Big Issue to the Czech Republic. So we have the same rules, like a code for vendors, we have badges for the vendors, everyone has to have his own place, the distribution is not organised in a way that everyone can go where they want - we want to try and get vendors on their places, with the goal that they will make relationships with regular customers, so the people can buy it from the same vendor."

So the vendor is given a copy of the magazine, sells that copy and keeps some of the money for himself. Is that correct?

"No. The vendors buys the magazine from us for 15 crowns, and then he sells it for 30. So 15 crowns goes to him, and 15 crowns goes to Novy Prostor."

How successful would you say Novy Prostor has been?

"When we started the project, we asked so many professional people - journalists and social workers - if this project could work in the Czech Republic, and most of them said, Oh we're not such a religious country as Poland for example, and the people won't buy the magazine because we're not religious enough and not oriented to helping others. But when we started, the public and the media saw it very positively, so we had a lot of publicity from the first year. Also we are associated in the International Network of Street Papers, which has headquarters in Glasgow, and the president has said Novy Prostor is one of the most successful projects in Eastern Europe."

Have you had any real success stories, of people who have gone out to sell the magazine and completely changed their life?

"You know some vendors just leave us and never come back and tell us what happened to them. But I know four people who started selling at Novy Prostor and now one is a taxi driver, another is running a course for pensioners, and the other two guys are working in a bakery shop and a clothing shop."

So some success stories there, but there have been stories in the media recently about attacks on homeless people, sparked off by a notorious case of a tram driver and his friend setting homeless people on fire to get them off the night trams. How big a problem do you think are attacks by members of the public on homeless people?

"You know this case was extreme - I think they just found the person who did it, which is very good. But you know, tram drivers have to be really - I don't know if I can say this! - pissed off at homeless people because they want to do their work, and I think it's quite hard. They really don't know what to do with the homeless people, and I think it's quite hard work for them. But obviously they can't resolve it by pouring petrol on them...But the situation here is quite hard if we have only 500 beds for a thousand people. So I think the City Council and other authorities have to do something about it."

And what is the solution?

"I think the solution is that these people have to have work, have to a bed and have to have food, then they won't be on the streets. So I think the policy should be opening more shelters."

Do you think homelessness is a priority for the government in this country?

"No, I don't think so. The priorities are elsewhere, homelessness is last on the list."

And what about the public. How do the Czech public generally view homeless people?

"Some of them take them positively, I think these people are not so rich, so they can understand what it means to be without money. And the second half don't understand the problem and they think they become homeless because it's their fault. For example this morning a blind man who sells Novy Prostor came here. He doesn't wear dark glasses, and one guy on Narodni Trida started beating him and saying Why are you playing at being blind? You're not blind. So this isn't as bad as burning homeless people, but the attacks are very common here."

Is this is a situation that you think will change in Czech society, that people will become more tolerant of people who are less fortunate than them?

"I hope the Czech society will become more tolerant when we have many nations here and society will be mixed up."

So change has to come from society.

"For sure."