Prague will address vexing homeless problem with a floating shelter

In Communist times it was illegal to be homeless. Today the Czech capital has a homeless population in the thousands. Why is the problem so difficult to address? And could a novel idea - a shelter on a boat - be the solution?

It's dinnertime at a center for the homeless in Prague run by the social service agency Nadeje, or Hope. About 15 men are sitting at cafe-style tables drinking tea and juice, and munching on brown bread. A few of them look unkempt and unshaven, others as if they are merely down on their luck. Arrayed around their feet, an assortment of sports bags, backpacks, and plastic shopping bags hold their worldly possessions. Ladislav Kovac is 33 years old, and comes from Moravia.

"This is my second year homeless. It happened like this: my partner and I had four kids in Moravia and I had a lot of debts. I wasn't able to pay for our home. I had no money for kids...So I lost my home and kids and came to Prague. I was previously working as a street cleaner, but because I started taking the drug pervitin I had to leave work for treatment. I then got into debt because I had taken out loans for furniture and so on. I wasn't even able pay them. In the end I couldn't pay for my family, not even with cheques. Eventually the bailiffs came and that's how I find myself in this trouble today."

Mr. Kovac is one of the 160 or so clients who come to the center on Bolzanova street every day to get a warm drink and a bite to eat. Despite being just 33 years old, he has difficulty walking. Nevertheless, Ladislav has bright eyes and happily converses with some other homeless men about the writer Karel Capek in between sips of soup. He says that until very recently, he had no place to sleep at night.

Tent city on Letna plain in Prague
"I hardly slept at all at night until recently. The choice was this: I could find 20 crowns to sleep at the Salvation Army, or 30 crowns to sleep at a Christian organization...or I stayed on my own two feet, riding the trams back and forth until the morning...That was my sleep. I have a friend here now who helped me. He found a place to for me and my partner to sleep. We can stay there for free. It's in a place that had a fire. The lady who owns it let us have one room. We fixed it up and that's where we are now. We'll sleep there all winter, until we can make some proper money and find a clean place to live."

Not all of the clients at this center are so lucky. Simply finding a place to sleep is one of the most pressing problems facing Prague's homeless. Last year, a prolonged cold snap prompted the city of Prague to open up a tent city on Letna plain, to prevent the homeless from freezing to death. Nadeje's director, Ilja Richter, fears a similarly desperate situation if the temperature drops this winter:

"The deficit in beds is a problem. Two years ago we counted more than 3,000 homeless, which means the real number of homeless in Prague may be as high as 5,000 or 6,000. But the total number of beds available is around 700 or 800. That's a big difference. The fact is that many homeless overnight in all kinds of places, for example abandoned homes and so on. When there was a serious cold snap last year, the city erected tents in Letna. Our workers there ended up helping around 200 to 240 people who overnighted there."

Every winter since the mid 1990s, the city has provided some kind of emergency accommodation to the homeless.

During the Communist era, it was illegal to be homeless, and the state made sure everyone had a job, or was punished if they didn't.

In the sixteen years since Communism ended, the number of homeless has shot up and a long-term solution has proved elusive. One of the mail impediments is the fact that no neighborhood wants to house a shelter, for fear of becoming a magnet for the homeless.

Pavla Vopelakova oversees homeless programs in Prague for the Salvation Army.

"The city is has a difficult position. Because they are here for all the citizens of Prague, and even though they are willing to help and support, when it comes to final decision, it's also up to the municipality, and they usually say yes it's necessary, but not here."

As a consequence, Prague's Mayor, Pavel Bem, has this year proposed a solution that falls just outside the geographic purview of Prague's district councils: a floating shelter that will be moored on the Vltava river. Jiri Janecek is Prague's city councillor responsible for Social Care and Housing Policy "Prague city council has secured a boat which will begin service on January 15th. It'll be located in the center of the city somewhere, on the banks of the Vltava, a short distance from the center so that the homeless won't have to take public transportation and so there won't be any danger for or rather contact with normal people. We have planned for the boat to contain 250 beds."

So far, Nadeje and the Salvation Army are supportive of the plan. While falling far short of meeting the total need for beds, it does signal that the city is serious about finding a solution.

There's a second dimension to this proposed solution. This January, ticket controllers will begin patrolling Prague's night trams. The city wants to prevent the homeless from using the trams as a place to pass the night, as Ladislav and hundreds of others have done.

Clearly, the city authorities want to be seen to be doing something to fight the intrusion of homeless people into the lives of ordinary Praguers. Jiri Janecek says he would like to see a more comprehensive solution to the problem of homelessness. But he is also unwilling to commit the city to providing a bed for anyone who requests one:

"Naturally not everyone who wants a bed will get one. Capacity is limited. Our priority has to be caring for Prague's homeless, and if we did promise a bed for everyone, we'd start to get even more people coming here from Ostrava, from Brno and elsewhere. I think each city in the Czech Republic should look after its own homeless population. Just because one city looks after their homeless doesn't mean that other towns can forget about theirs. Otherwise all the homeless will come to us here in Prague and I definitely don't want that to happen."

Pavla Vopelakova of the Salvation Army says her group has a productive relationship with the city, and would rate Prague's efforts to fight homelessness as a six or seven on a scale of one to ten. While the problem is stubborn, she says there are groups which could avoid the trap of homelessness with only a little additional support

"I think the biggest problem not only here but in the whole Czech Republic is the follow-up accomodation. Because if we look in our hostel, 40% of the population of the hostels are elderly or handicapped people, people who are able to live on their own but have nowhere to move to. People who can be functioning in a normal society maybe with nominal support but they are living independently. Because the longer they are in the hostel, there is this syndrome of institutional care, and it's making them more dependent on us and that's what we don't want."

One of the trends that's worrying Vopelakova right now is the increased number of individuals and families who like Ladislav, are being made homeless by their inability to manage consumer debt.

Now that Christmas is over, and the decorations are coming down, many moms and dads are seeing an uncomfortable future reflected in the screens of their brand-new flat screen TVs.

"You know the TV is costing you ten thousand but you don't have to pay anything on the spot, you are just paying in ten payments or eleven payments. Or the bank is offering you a loan, you can get 30,000 on the spot, you just sign a paper, but usually what they don't tell you how much actually it's going to cost you in all those months you are paying back. And some people, maybe in one month just before Christmas they want to get presents or they want to get TV or they want to go on holiday and they don't calculate monthly how much money monthly they have to pay back and whether they can afford it from social benefits or minimum wage which they receive."