Will the city resort to repressive measures against the homeless?

Homelessness remains a complex and vexing problem in the Czech Republic, especially in Prague, despite notable gains and successes by NGOs as well as the city. A year ago, the Czech capital saw the opening of a new shelter on the Vltava River, adding 250 beds to already existing sites run by organisations such as Naděje and the Salvation Army. But with a homeless population of at least 2,000 (by conservative estimates - some social workers double the number) it’s clear more needs to be done. The question is "what".

You might find this proposal more than a little surprising: not more beds, not more funding, but restrictive measures aimed at eventually “forcing” the homeless off the street. The idea is to train a new police unit that would push the homeless to outer parts of the city. I spoke to the Prague city councilor for Social Affairs and Housing Jiří Janeček and asked him to explain the idea last week:

“When I first came to this post a year ago, what was sorely needed was a strategy for tackling homelessness. We approached the problem and organised a census to try and get an idea of just how many homeless people there were, as well as put renewed emphasis on social services to try and reintegrate those on the street. We tried to help them find work, for example, subsidizing 20 percent of pay for those who found jobs. As well, we provided social services. What we found is that there are now more jobs than demand, more empty beds than are taken, so we began considering repressive measures, to push those who won’t take steps to improving their situation to at least move away from the centre.”

Photo: Kristýna Maková
The councilor has made no secret the idea is to essentially “harass” hardcore cases to abandon sites in the centre, so ordinary Prague residents as well as tourists no longer need to put up with the homeless, threatened or antagonized by what often appear as increasingly abusive individuals. Jiří Janeček adds an important aspect of the plan is to push those who can, to try and help themselves.

“If we push the homeless from the city centre they will lose - first and foremost - their source of income which comes from begging. That should act as motivation for at least some to take a first step to try and reintegrate. For others, who won’t adapt, there are plans for other support: a warm shelter with mattresses, soup, and so on, but on the periphery, certainly not in the middle of the city.”

Not surprisingly, many who work in the social services have expressed opposition to the proposed methods, saying repression of any kind is simply unacceptable. Milena Černá heads the Committee of Goodwill, a charity founded by the late Olga Havlová – the former first lady.

“Normal citizens hate homeless people, it’s a fact. But that’s all the more reason we have to help them and have to provide them with services. It is all the more reason we have to draw them from ‘outside’.”

Mrs Černa says instead of focusing on repression, the focus should remain on social work, and on those who cooperate daily with the homeless. In her view, they have the most difficult of tasks, often rewarded with failure and relapse of clients with whom they have spent countless hours. Still, she adds, success is possible, and maintains it is necessary to always keep hope, no matter how slim.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“You know, those people are sometimes in really hopeless and really bad situations and we can not really imagine what that means. Many attempt to turn their lives around many times and fail. Some take the opportunity and gain a second chance and change their lives but not everyone is able to do this.”

One person aided by the social workers from the Salvation Army is Frantíšek Pospíšil, ano older homeless man who was helped through a several-tiered programme. A long-term resident at the Salvation Army’s Bohuslav Bureš home in Prague 7, he told tell me a little more about his life.

“I have been homeless, on and off, since 1986. I stopped work and then found only odd jobs. I slept where I could and at one point even lived in a cave. It’s fate, it was my fate. I was worst off, I’d say, in 1990, 1991. I went from odd job to odd job, three years for the circus as an electrician. Of course, you mustn’t give in to your passions: alcohol or drugs.”

As for the city’s proposed police unit, his view is unambiguous:

“No police unit can make any difference against homelessness: it’s a question of society, how society is run and organized. Think about the various pressures people face today. Pensioners who face rising prices and costs can suddenly find themselves in trouble. They can end up on the street themselves. How is any police unit going to deal with that?”

The Salvation Army’s Tereza Praslíčková, who oversees the Bureš facility, agrees such a move would be a mistake.

Photo: CTK
“I understand peoples’ reaction to the homeless, if someone smells bad or is causing a ruckus. I dislike it myself. But it is our job to send social workers out to try and deal with individuals directly, to offer them food, and a chance to improve their hygienic conditions. Honestly, I think that this is the only realistic step. No form of repression can work and I have to say I am against it.”

City councilor Jiří Janeček does stress that any police unit focused on the homeless will cooperate with teams of social workers sent out to deal with chronic cases first. He also suggests the police unit will itself be formed from professionals with experience working with the homeless. It remains to be seen, what will be the councilor’s next step. It does appear he will not shy away from current plans. In his view, the city is doing “everything it can” for the city’s homeless.

“I think that we have really done the maximum and that it’s possible to say the city has been quite generous. Now the question is not what Prague can do for the homeless, but what the homeless can do for the city.”