Petrol attack on tram highlights problem of assaults on Prague's homeless

Police in Prague are investigating two separate incidents of petrol attacks against homeless people sleeping on night trams. In one incident a man ended up in hospital with second degree burns - and a tram driver was arrested and charged with attempted murder. The attacks have raised awareness of the plight of homeless people in the Czech Republic.

These incidents have shocked police and the public. In the most serious case, a homeless man sleeping on a night tram narrowly escaped with his life after someone poured drops of petrol on his clothes and lit a match. A newspaper claimed the tram driver and a friend had been using the method to get rid of homeless passengers for some time, only this time it went too far.

Blanka is a 59-year-old homeless woman who's been riding Prague's trams for three months. Now safely housed by the homeless shelter Nadeje (which means Hope in English), she told me that ill-treatment and abuse by tram drivers was a daily ordeal for the capital's homeless.

"Night tram drivers treat homeless people very badly. Even when they haven't done anything wrong. All they're doing is riding the tram. I know they're riding for free, they don't have enough money to buy a ticket. But when the tram gets to the end of the line, the drivers kick them in the legs, bang on the windows, shout terrible things at them. And these aren't people who are dirty or whatever - they look normal, like you or me, we don't go around dirty, we wear clean clothes.

"Even when they don't have anywhere to live they try to wash somewhere and keep themselves clean. They're not dirty people, they're normal people, but the tram drivers treat them terribly. Once I remember a tram driver left us in the rain during a storm - we had to stand there for two hours because he refused to let us on."

Dagmar Kocmankova, co-founder of the homeless street paper Novy Prostor, says she has some understanding for the tram drivers, but adds that the problem is caused by not enough beds for the homeless.

"This case was extreme. 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."

Until then people like Blanka will find themselves without a bed for the night. And many, especially in the winter, will choose riding on a night tram rather than risking death by hypothermia. She says the public often doesn't realise how easy it is to lose your home and find yourself on the streets.

"Most people imagine homeless people as dirty and unwashed. But they don't understand that there are also homeless people who just get into the situation I did, sometimes it's their own fault, sometimes through no fault of their own. But the public sees homeless in general as dirty, rolling around on the pavement, begging. But they're not all homeless. Homeless people are normal people. Anyone can become homeless, and it can happen overnight. You never know what's going to happen. I became homeless overnight."