Find out how it is to be homeless in Prague

It is freezing cold in Prague today. Yet all the windows in the tram are open. Passengers hold scarves or handkerchiefs against their noses. This can only mean one thing: a homeless person has just stepped on board. Nobody does anything, nobody says anything, because homeless people are tolerated. Prague City Council estimates that there are approximately 5.000 homeless people in Prague, the majority are men.

The main causes of homelessness stem from a combination of several factors such as unemployment, lack of finances, drug or alcohol addiction and mental health issues. In winter, beds are available in shelters, but there are more homeless people than beds. One of the shelters is the Hermes boat which is moored under Stefanikuv Bridge. A bed for the night costs CKZ 20 (€0.75), people are welcome from 7.30 in the evening to 7.30 in the morning. Then they are back on the street. No wonder homeless people like to take a ride in a heated tram in winter.

Warm shelter

Trams are heated in winter and ticket inspectors only occasionally board trams. With a bit of luck, a homeless person can ride on the tram for quite some time before the driver asks him (I have never seen a homeless women ride a tram) to get off. There is rarely any struggle or violence and passengers generally do not interfere. All they do is open windows and change seats to be far removed from the stench. Long after the homeless person has got off, a pungent smell still lingers in the tram.

Clothing and food

Locals often buy a bag of bread rolls to give to homeless people or buy them a coffee to-go. Homeless people roam the streets and go from one garbage bin to the next. It is customary to leave used clothing and shoes in plain sight at these waste containers. You can often find articles of clothing neatly spread over a bench in a park, or hanging from a branch of a tree. These items are left for homeless people on purpose. Food waste that is still edible is also clearly visible disposed of near the waste bins.

Homeless people are not scary

Homeless people kneel, bended forward on the ground to wait for a gift. A dog often accompanies them. They do not look at you and are neither scary nor pushy. They are simply unlucky to have been excluded from society for whatever reason. The social safety net in the Czech Republic is weak. It is good practice to have some change in your pocket. A few crowns are enough to make a difference to someone less fortunate.

A two-hour homeless tour

Go on a two-hour ‘homeless tour’ and get the feeling what homelessness is about. Your guide is a homeless person. He or she will take you to places you would otherwise not visit and teach you how to survive on the streets. Tours are individual or in small groups of up to four persons.
You can book the tour online via Pragulic, the organization behind this initiative, who also ensures that your guide gets his fee. If you are satisfied, you can give your guide a generous tip at the end of the tour.

Street newspaper

If you don’t feel simulating homelessness, then support the homeless in Prague by buying their NP magazine (NP – Novy Prostor, Czech for New Space). It is in Czech with one article in English and the cost is only 30 CZK (€1.10). You will find the sellers at the exit of the metro stations.
The NP magazine sellers are homeless or have social issues and are outside of what is called ‘society’.

Selling the revenue of these magazines allows people, who otherwise have no legal way of making money, to earn some cash. This is how it works: the seller buys the magazine at a discount, resells it to the public at a fixed higher price and the seller keeps the difference.

You will always see the same seller at the same place. This is because they are assigned a specific location. If you want to know the name of the seller near your metro station, go to the NP website and click on the marker. It shows a photo, the name and ID-number of ‘your’ seller.

Homeless cooks

Jídelna, kuchařek bez domova (canteen, homeless cooks) is a vegetarian restaurant where homeless women cook and serve your meal. You will also find them at pop-up festivals. More about homeless cooks  

photos: Marianne Crone and Jeroen Schornagel

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