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Homeless in Czechia: Falling Through the Cracks

For decades, Czechs have enjoyed growing prosperity and higher living standards that have masked the ills of poverty. But as the cost-of-living and housing crises take root, the threat of homelessness in Czechia is more serious than meets the eye.

“No one willingly chooses to become homeless,” Olga Pek, director of the Jako Doma organisation for homeless women, emphatically tells BIRN.

By no one, she refers to the approximately 24,000 people categorised as homeless in the Czech Republic, though it’s more realistic to talk about the 50,000-70,000 people currently living without a roof over their heads, according to unofficial estimates.

Pek also hints at the hundreds of thousands of Czechs who, as a result of the housing crisis and skyrocketing cost of living, find themselves at risk of losing their home.

While many homeless people live on the streets, about half frequently use some type of social and civic-run accommodation services, halfway houses or hostels, according to a study by the Labour and Social Research Institute. Many others are either hospitalised, residents in asylum homes or imprisoned – making their presence even less palpable to the general public.

“Since a 2013 peak, the number of homeless people using our services has been decreasing,” Daniel Svoboda, director of the Prague office of the NGO Nadeje (“Hope”) tells BIRN, pointing to the favourable economic climate and employment enjoyed by the Czech Republic in recent times.

But as their numbers dropped, Svoboda notes that those who kept coming were the most-at-risk, including seniors, people with health issues or those suffering from mental illness.

Homeless women, estimated at between 5,000 and 16,000 depending on the methodology used, are another highly vulnerable group whose specific needs were long overlooked by both social services and women’s rights organisations, according to Pek.

“Due to structural inequities, women more often fall into poverty, are subject to abuse, and this increases their risks of homelessness,” she explains. “Women on the streets have needs different from those of men – they often deal with the topics of sexual violence, menstruation, and hygiene, pregnancy and motherhood.”

Given their homelessness is often not as noticeable and due to bad experiences with men, they may avoid gender non-specific homeless services, she adds.

Night shift of field NGO workers in Prague, Czechia. Photo: Facebook / NADĚJE

Homelessness on the rise again

Yet after years of dwindling numbers, preliminary reports suggest that people are once again being pushed out onto the streets. For the first time in over a decade, Nadeje saw a 7 per cent increase in the numbers of needy in 2021, followed by another 25 per cent increase in 2022.

Nadeje’s Svoboda expects further growth in the numbers during the coming 2023/24 winter season, pointing out that a few years’ gap commonly exists between the onset of an economic downturn and an observable rise in homelessness. “It’s interesting that our colleagues working in the poorer border regions have already registered higher growth of homeless people,” he says.

People working on the front lines are already witnessing added demand for their services, mainly as a result of the pandemic and rising cost of living. Last winter, NGOs and municipal facilities across Czechia had already warned of overcapacity and growing queues as more people were pushed to seek alternative services because of significantly higher energy costs and freezing temperatures.

“We have about 60 new homeless people a month,” Svoboda told Czech Radio in November. “People who did not come in the past are coming now because they lived in hostels or shared or rented housing, and now they no longer have the financial means to pay for such housing.”

By early 2023, many homeless shelters or emergency housing facilities were filling up, including temporary hostels set up by Prague city hall in unused buildings.

“Every winter, we increase our capacities in our social services,” Jitka Modlitbova from the Czech Salvation Army told Czech Radio. “This applies to our night shelter and our day centres, [which remain open] during the night so people in need can come inside and spend the night on so-called ‘warm chairs’.”

The arrival of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees since Russia’s invasion in February 2022 has put additional strain on social services and volunteers’ organisations, and sparked tensions in some facilities.

“In some day centres, clients don’t like hearing the Ukrainian or Russian language. There seems to be some concern that capacities destined to solving their situation” will be further limited because of Ukrainian refugees seeking similar support, Svoboda tells BIRN.

After another year of lower economic growth and double-digit inflation rates, last winter may have been just a warning shot.

A homeless man sleeps in Prague, Czech Republic, 18 January 2021. EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK

Ticking time-bomb

This noticeable yet still marginal rise in the homeless may be only the tip of the iceberg of a silent crisis growing beneath the surface. This is pushing large numbers of people closer to the poverty line, at the mercy of an unexpected job loss or another unfortunate twist of fate.

According to government data, the housing crisis affects 250,000 people in Czechia, a figure that also includes people living in inadequate, overcrowded or unsanitary housing.

Another 1.3 million people are at risk of losing their house or flat and spend a disproportionate share on their income to cover housing expenses, according to the Ministry for Regional Development.

Although still enjoying a roof over their heads, tens of thousands of Czechs either cannot afford or barely afford suitable lodgings for themselves or their family, a ticking timebomb for the near future.

“Becoming homeless can be much ‘easier’ than most people imagine,” says Radka Valiskova, head of the Prague branch of the NGO Maltezska Pomoc, warning against misleading stereotypes commonly associated with homeless people, such as physical dirtiness, drunkenness and alcoholism, or the idea that they pose a threat to children.

Like others across the Czech Republic, her organisation provides outreach services to people experiencing homelessness, “going directly wherever they are staying” to support them into reintegrating mainstream society, offering them psychological and emotional support, and helping them secure social and housing benefits or find employment.

“There is a prevailing belief that if someone is on the streets, it’s their own fault; we often fail to consider how different each person’s starting conditions can be,” she points out, while urging more compassion on the topic. “Anyone can find themselves in a difficult life situation and simply be unable to endure it, make a mistake or succumb to weakness. It’s only human.”

Tales from the canteen of homeless cooks. Photo: Facebook / Jako-Doma

Seasonal or systemic help

State aid for those unable to pay for appropriate accommodation remains far from sufficient even at the current numbers, social workers warn.

“Homeless people can receive what’s known as ‘material need benefits’, but it’s not a substantial amount of money,” Valiskova tells BIRN, pointing to the network of social services providing outreach like herself, offering overnight or temporary accommodation, or organising food or clothing assistance for the needy.

From the Czech Salvation Army’s night vouchers to occasional volunteering, there are many ways people can help make life on the streets or in shelters slightly more bearable. People are becoming more aware of the problem, and individual donations are increasing accordingly, activists welcome.

But that’s likely to prove a drop in the ocean. As Frantisek Krupa, head of the Czech branch of the Salvation Army, notes, it’s much more costly and difficult to help people once they’re already living on the streets than preventing them from losing their apartment in the first place.

Relying on state support can also prove unreliable, as Valiskova explains regarding a recent social housing project implemented in Prague between city hall and civic associations.

“It was carefully planned, and we were able to provide housing for over 30 individuals, all of whom still reside in their apartments. But due to a change in the city council, the current administration intends to terminate this politically unpopular project,” she says.

Highlighting the positive role played by the city of Prague in tackling homelessness, especially by enhancing accommodation capacities during winter months, Svoboda from Nadeje nevertheless deplores that “this favourable trend might end soon”.

He also calls for greater public investment in social services working on the topic, including making sure buildings used to house the homeless meet their needs in trems of privacy, sanitation, etc., and in strengthening teams of experts on the ground, such as doctors, psychologists or addiction experts.

Pek from Jako Doma welcomes the fact that homelessness involving women and transpeople has become a topic discussed in the public sphere. But she reminds that their situation remains extremely “volatile and uncertain, subject to constant changes in welfare policies”, including to recent cuts in public spending and a dire lack of social housing.

To address the issue in a more systemic way, the Ministry for Regional Development is currently preparing a Housing Support Act to reduce by at least 30 per cent within a decade the number of people in housing need, acknowledging the lack of “systemic solution to the housing crisis” in Czechia and the “ineffectiveness of the current system relying on individual municipalities and organisations”.

The law, which could allocate up to 1.5 billion crowns (61 million euros) per year to address both homelessness and structural housing needs across the country, is expected to be debated in parliament next year.

If successful, the law would go into effect in the second half of 2025. But how many more people will fall between the cracks and find themselves living on the streets before then?

Source : Reporting Democracy