Social services head: tent city to help Prague’s homeless could go up in ten days

Photo: European Commission

Unusually cold weather has claimed 13 lives in Prague since October – 11 of them in December alone. A combination of hypothermia and alcohol played a role. With severe conditions expected to continue, the question now is how quickly help for the city’s homeless can be provided to try and stop what should be preventable deaths.

Photo: European Commission
The cold since early December has been bitter and uncompromising, so far leading to 11 deaths in Prague, the latest victim on Sunday, a homeless man believed to have succumbed to hypothermia. With little chance of the conditions letting up in the coming days, NGOs in Prague, the city’s Centre for Social Services and local legislators are negotiating a plan to help: a tent “city” where some 300 people could find emergency shelter. A little earlier I spoke to the head of Prague’s Centre for Social Services Tomáš Jan:

“Our centre is the biggest provider for the homeless in Prague and we run a number of shelters helping people on the street, including couples. Shelters also include the Hermes boat home on the Vltava, where we have increased the number of beds. We also run several emergency stations. At this point in time, there are still a few beds remaining, but we are negotiating for a tent city to go up.”

The tent city on Letná plain in 2006, photo: CTK
A similar emergency project was conducted in Prague in 2006 on the city’s Letná plain, a large plateau where helicopters and trucks were able to operate. Those heated tents saved lives in possibly even harsher conditions. But getting such projects off the ground is not easy. Tomáš Ján told Radio Prague on Wednesday the new project should begin in about ten days.

“The plan is to put up a tent city which could help up to 300 people weather the current conditions. We’ll start with 160 beds and see from there. The help of the military, which owns the tents, is needed as is a permit by Prague 8. This time the tents should go up on Rohan Island, as opposed to Letná which is under construction, I think an agreement will be reached and the first tents can be in place in roughly ten days. As I said, in existing shelters we still have room for people now.”

That begs the question, why others have been dying or continue to be at risk. The reasons are often complex, say observers, ranging from illness to alcohol or drug addiction. The Centre for Social Services, like NGOs, routinely sends staff into the field, providing assistance and meals – but they can’t aid those who don’t want to be helped. Tomáš Ján again:

“We have a map of the city’s homeless, where different people live, but of course they can be there one day and don’t have to be the next. Many of them migrate across the city. Others are in acceptable conditions – under a make-shift roof with some kind of heating; those highest at risk are those in their own tent or under plastic covers. The problem is that our people in the field are not always able to get them to accept help.”

Reasons for not taking shelter at an outlet run by social workers can also be simpler, says the director of the Centre for Social Services: some of the homeless smoke, which they cannot in shelters or many simply do not want to leave behind a beloved pet, a cat or dog not allowed inside for hygienic reasons.