Written by Laura Baranik
As in most major European cities, you are likely to see a fair share of impoverished individuals on the streets of Prague. Though the issue is seldom addressed either by politicians or in the media, the rate of Czech homelessness is an increasing concern. Here follows a brief overview of the local problem and what you can do to help.
Situation and Statistics
Precise statistics for homelessness are difficult to obtain; some estimates put the national number at around 35,000 (0.35% of the general population). Most homeless live in the larger metropolitan areas, having moved from smaller towns to Prague or Brno in the hope of finding work. According to a 2004 official census, Prague has a homeless population of 5,000 or 6,000, though other counts have found this number to be greater. It has been acknowledged that there are hundreds of “uncountable” homeless people who live completely isolated from society in sewers, ventilating shafts, and underground tunnel systems.
86% of the homeless population is estimated to be male. This number is explained by the fact that women are more likely to be drawn into prostitution or to find male partners who will support them. Most of the homeless seem to be between 20 and 50 years of age, but an increasing number of destitute teenagers has been reported.
Some homeless are able to find temporary work, but lack the more permanent jobs needed to pay rent. Though state unemployment benefits exist, it is difficult or impossible to obtain these without a stable address. Most homeless spend the coldest nights in train stations, parked train cars, or night trams. In previous years, beggars (the most desperate fraction of the homeless population) were usually visible only at train stations and other travel hubs. Today, they are present in most areas frequented by tourists and in metro stations.
Homelessness is a relatively recent phenomenon among the former Eastern Bloc countries. During Communism, being unemployed was virtually impossible, since the duty to work was imposed by law. For those workers without flats of their own, the Soviet system provided ubytovny, or special worker hostels, for them to live in. The fall of Communism brought about a massive program of privatization and restitution, leading to a huge deficiency in low-rent housing. Even today, many of the homeless lament the loss of the governmental support system available during Soviet rule. It has been estimated that the Czech Republic´s homeless population has doubled in the past ten years.
Political and Public Attitudes
The problem of homelessness is generally considered to be a marginal one, with the public often viewing the homeless as people who live voluntarily on the fringes of society. Czech law does not define homelessness, and rarely is the problem addressed in political spheres as a state of social exclusion. In fact, the Czech word for homeless person (bezdomovec) means both “homeless” and “stateless,” illustrating the country´s rather vague stance towards the issue.
The Czech constitution does not explicitly guarantee the right to housing, though according to the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms constitutional act, “Everybody that suffers from material need is entitled to such assistance as is essential for securing his or her basic living conditions.” The precise nature of these “basic living conditions,” however, is not defined.
The government rarely involves itself in the construction of low-rent housing. This is in part due to the fact that much of the Czech middle class already lives in what would be considered “low-rent” housing in other countries. It is almost unthinkable, therefore, for the government to build new (and, presumably, better) living facilities for those lowest on the social scale. But with no available social housing, the integration of the homeless is virtually impossible.
There are several non-governmental organizations that provide assistance to the homeless. One of these is Naděje, a charity network that has been in operation since 1990. Though the organization has branches throughout Prague, its primary location near the main train station was shut down in September 2006 due to restitution by the family of the building´s previous owner. The site provided food, medical services, and onsite social workers. Though the city has promised to construct another building for Naděje nearby ahead of the winter months, progress on the new center has been dubious.
So far, there are only 580 beds available in shelters – far fewer than is necessary to shut out Prague´s bitterly cold winters. Last year, in response to record low temperatures, the government constructed a temporary tent city in Letná Park, but the total capacity of the shelter was only 700 people.
Another organization providing hope for the homeless is Nový Prostor, which, among other projects, publishes a monthly general-interest “street paper” which features articles on social themes, the arts, and current events. The magazine is sold on the streets and in the metro by homeless and disadvantaged people, giving them an opportunity to have social contact, gain self-confidence, and earn a small living. Even if you don´t speak Czech, buying this 30-CZK publication every month is a great way to support those who need our help most.
Organizations helping the homeless: