Seeing Prague through the eyes of the homeless

Photo: Pragulic

In this week’s spotlight, Radio Prague goes on a special tour with a Pragulic guide to look at a different side of Prague.

José,  photo: Pragulic
It’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday and I’m standing with several others at Prague’s Charles Square waiting to start an unusual tour of the city - a tour that offers a different view of the Czech capital rarely, if ever, seen by either tourists or locals. Our guide José, whose dark elongated face and long dark-brown hair add even more mystery to this evening adventure, approaches us with a smile:

“Welcome, I’m glad that you’ve chosen me. But I have to warn you that this won’t be a standard tour around historical Prague, it will be about the real lives of homeless people, or people who find themselves on the streets – the homeless, the thieves, the druggies. It’s also all connected to Prague’s history.”

José is one of eight guides working for a new social enterprise, Pragulic. Last week, the new organization started offering tours that let you see the city through the eyes of the people that know its nooks and crannies, as well as its underbelly, best – its homeless. All of the guides themselves have experienced life on the streets.

“I want to show tourists life at night. These people on the streets they have to live from something. And when they have to get something, either petty theft, or collecting paper, they do it all at night, because the night can hide them. At night there are many drunk people, and they’re asking to be robbed. But we have to ask, ‘Why do the homeless do it?’. They do it because they have to survive somehow, no one will give them that food, no one will tell them, ‘Come, sleep at my place.’”

Katarina Chalupková,  Ondřej Klügl,  Tereza Jurečková,  photo: Pragulic
These tours are the brainchild of three young students from Prague’s Faculty of Humanities - Tereza Jurečková, Katarina Chalupková and Ondřej Klügl. The project got a big boost of confidence this spring, as well as small starting capital – when it won the community vote as one of five Czech projects competing for the Social Impact Award. Tickets for the tour go for 200 crowns, while there are discounts for students and seniors. Guides received half of the amount earned on any given night.

Tereza Jurečková and Katarina Chalupková tell me more about how the new guides prepared for the job:

“Training lasted for four weeks, focusing on motivation, building groups, helping each other. They also created their tours and they practiced outside in public.”

MV: How important is it for you to build long-lasting relationships with them?

“We’ve got together a good group of people and we want them to be a community, to be able to help themselves with all sorts of problems and we definitely want a long-term relationship. But in the future we may also hire other guides as well.”

“And like in every company, it is more expensive to hire new people and it takes a long time, so we are really in favour of long-term cooperation.”

MV: Have your opinions or your views of the world changed because of this project?

Photo: Pragulic
“It changed a lot because I never worked with homeless people before. From the very beginning I believed there would be homeless people who would be able to do these tours, people who are interesting and can be good at what they do. It’s a very touching experience and it completely changes your point-of-view - on everything.”

Back on the tour, our guide José tells us why he chose to start the evening at Charles Square, a central location in Prague but hardly the most picturesque:

“Why did I choose to start here? We used to come here with my classmates when I was studying photography; this was under communism, and although the police would throw us out it was a special place for us. It is also a very special place historically, because the so-called new Prague started here, the New Town.

“Starting from this church all the way to the town hall building over there, you will find the elite of Prague’s prostitutes, from 50 and 60 year olds, unfortunately all the way to child prostitutes. And just another, maybe strange, story is that this tree here was planted by Charles IV in the 13th century. He planted around 20 to 30 trees around Prague. Two or three of them are here, and the rest are at Kampa.”

Another reason why José, whose father came to Communist Czechoslovakia as a student from Peru, begins at Charles Square is because of the courthouse located at its edge. When he was arrested in 1987 during an anti-regime student protest, it was here that he was sentenced to eight years of forced labor but ended up doing roughly two years of time.

Photo: Pragulic
“It’s unbelievable that it actually worked like that here. And with my face and skin color you can only imagine how it went. I was the only dark-skinned person to be sentenced for plotting against the republic.”

José’s tour is very much a personal story, but it is just as much about the history of Prague, revealing our guide’s fondness for Charles IV and his own experiences under Communism. And it always comes back to what it means to be homeless – showing what homeless people in Prague do, where they can go and how they survive. Or try to get back on their feet. José again:

“Of course you see homeless people on the street who are lying there drunk with a bottle of wine. But there are also people among them on the streets who are trying, who you wouldn’t even immediately recognize as homeless. Some are just trying to survive but are too old, for example, to get a job. The bureau says ‘Fine, you have an education.’ But what can you do if you’re 50 or 55?”

According to official figures, there are somewhere between two and four thousand homeless people living in Prague, but in José’s view – and that of others in the field – in reality there are at least 15 thousand: most are not officially registered. Even if they were, he is not confident they would be helped. In his view, the only time the city really pays attention to the plight of the homeless is during the coldest days of the winter; otherwise the support system for the homeless is underfunded and badly administered.

“The social system here doesn’t work: it is too poor and poorly run. There is only so much charities like the Salvation Army and Naděje can do. So I don’t think things will get better any time soon.”

Neither the founders of Pragulic nor the guides think that they can drastically change life for the homeless in Prague but through the tours they do hope they can at least change a few people’s preconceptions, drawing some attention to issues that otherwise are often “quite happily” swept under the rug.

Illustrative photo
“What I want from this project is for people who come to listen to us to change their mind a bit. And maybe the people whose minds I will be able to change will pass on the information to others. Because many people really criticize the homeless, they throw them all into the same bag, and that’s just not right.

“Because even among the homeless there are cool, smart, interesting people: artists, musicians, dancers, photographers, painters, and even just regular people who are trying to get by. But they can’t because the system doesn’t let them. That’s what I want the people to understand.”