How People Become Homeless, and How You Can Help Them This Winter

Everybody’s lives have been affected by Coronavirus, but people without homes have been hit hard by the sharp fall in tourism, the closure of public toilets, and nighttime curfew.

Even with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, homeless people now face the brutal conditions of winter. Not only are they battling freezing weather, but they are surrounded by the focus of Christmas joy, family, and togetherness which can add to their feelings of isolation. 

The stigma around homelessness means that people can be unwilling to help. However, people can become homeless for many reasons outside of their control – such as losing their job, as many have during the crisis. They deserve compassion and support from those who can provide it. 

If you decide you have the means to help Prague’s homeless population, it may be challenging to know where to begin, so to educate ex-pats, nonprofit organisation Mistni Mistnim (Locals for Locals) founder Ester Pacltova and Jitka Modlitbová, the Director of Social Service with the Salvation Army in the Czech Republic, shed some light on common questions. 

How do you define homelessness? 

“When you ask someone to imagine a homeless person, most people would imagine a middle-aged guy sleeping rough outside, with a long beard, sitting on a bench somewhere, maybe drinking and doing drugs,  maybe begging,” Modlitbová says. “A homeless person can look like this, but this is a small fraction of the group of people who we consider to be homeless.”

To define what homelessness is, the Czech Republic uses a system called the European Typology of Homelessness and housing exclusion. Developed by the European Federation of organisations working with the people who are homeless (FEANTSA), the ETHOS classifies living situations that constitute homelessness or housing exclusion. The four main categories of living situations are Rooflessness, Houselessness, Insecure Housing, and Inadequate Housing.

This encompasses those would be classed as the Hidden Homeless. “These are people who are living in overcrowded housing, squats, poor facilities, or are couch surfing,” explains Modlitbová. 

How many people are homeless and what is their demographic? 

It’s difficult to say how many homeless people live in Prague. In 2011, the Czech Statistical Office attempted to count the number of people living without permanent shelter in the whole of the Czech Republic for the first time. They counted 11,496 people. However, this doesn’t consider those who are considered hidden homeless. “We know this is nowhere near the reality,” Modlitbová argued. “They simply counted people they saw on the streets.” 

In 2012, the Czech Statistical Office counted up to 100 thousand people who live in poverty, which puts them at risk of becoming homeless. Meanwhile, a study from the same year by Hradecký et al estimated around 30,000 people according to the ETHOS classifier. 

While the exact figure is impossible to pin down, it has grown since 2012, especially during the pandemic. The demographic has also shifted. Modlitbová explains: “Four out of five homeless people are men. But we have recently seen a rise in senior citizens using services, as well as more young adults and people who experience mental and physical health problems. These are the people who struggle the most.” 

How do people fall into homelessness? 

“There is a mixture of reasons, as many smaller crises can lead to bigger ones,” says Pacltová. “Many homeless people have experienced some kind of abuse or trauma in their life. There is a high risk of homelessness for people living in institutional care, such as foster care or prison.”

Having a network of support that is so crucial to preventing homelessness, Pacltova says.  “Without support people are more vulnerable. Anybody can experience life-changing situations such as divorce, illness, or losing your job – which are big hammers to the head when you are alone.” 

In Czechia in particular, there is a big problem with debt, Pacltova explains. It is really easy to get into but hard to get out of.  “Yes – it is really important to talk about money,” Modlitbová added. Here, she began sharing what state support is available for people without a home or at risk of homelessness. 

If you lose your job, you can apply for social benefits from the labour office. They provide you with a portion of what you earnt previously, which is usually 3,800 CZK a month. If you are in debt, however, you will have a fraction of this taken away to pay it back. Furthermore, you can only get six months of support. If you miss just one appointment, you lose support for six months. 

“This means you may search more desperately for a job, but even with a full-time job, the debt collectors will leave you with barely enough to live. To cope, people turn to the black market, which leaves them without a pension. This is part of the reason why we see more old people using our services.” 

There are also social problems that can exacerbate the issue. Modlitbová explains that because of the stigma surrounding homelessness, people are often reluctant to ask for help or to visit social services when they are struggling, for fear of being judged. 

“I also want to clarify that people are not happy to be outside,” Pacltova added. “Numbers of homeless people are growing but social housing is not. The demand is higher than the supply. People you see on the streets would love to be inside – but they simply don’t have the choice.”

If you are losing your home, what support is there?

Housing is very expensive for many people in Prague, as there is no social housing system in the country. The Ministry of Social Affairs has a social housing platform, but it is up to councils to implement it. Furthermore, commercial living is often not accessible for people on social benefits, as you have to match their criteria. 

People can interact with street programmes, where social workers provide essential items. Night shelters offer beds for 10 to 30 crowns a night. They are free in the winter. They can also visit day centres to take a shower, find food, a nurse and do their laundry – but there are always queues, which means not everyone can get inside. 

“The day centres in Prague are huge but there aren’t many of them,” Modlitbová says. “I work at the biggest centre in Prague and one day in November we served 190 people. These numbers will only grow as the weather gets colder.”

What changed with COVID? 

“In March, when panic set in, homelessness wasn’t a priority in people’s minds. But when we had a curfew, it becomes obvious that some people had nowhere to go,” Modlitbová said. “Luckily, we have currently had almost no cases amongst the homeless population.”

“Many people are facing homelessness for the first time. Our service has been flooded with requests from people who lost jobs in the hospitality sector and don’t know where to find help,” she added. 

News spread in March that the municipality was housing people in empty tourist hotels. However, there are only four of these hotels, and they are full now. The strategies that the homeless used before COVID have also been affected – such as using shopping centres for warmth, restaurants for facilities and bin diving for food. This has returned for now, but the situation is far from over. 

Options to earn money – such as with part-time seasonal jobs – have also been taken away.

What is hard about escaping homelessness? 

Pacltová shared this story from a 57-year-old man with experience of rough sleeping: 

‘You lose confidence in yourself and the system, after dealing with authorities who don’t believe in you. Finally, after 18 years on the streets, I found people who helped push me. I got a job I enjoy. I want to qualify for social work. 

I don’t have a family but I do have support. I haven’t won but the path ahead is right. For me, home is having a loved one to return to, in the same place every day.’ 

How and where you can help as an ex-pat.

Pacltová began with a reminder that the homeless are not a homogenous group – they have diverse needs.

If you meet somebody on the street, there are many things you can do. You can offer them food, water or money. Most important, says Jitka, is to remember that you don’t need to be an expert to engage with homeless people.  Even if you don’t want to give them money, it is important to simply acknowledge them,  Modlitbová stresses: “Homeless people often talk about feeling invisible, so just noticing them can go a long way. Behave normally, like you would with anyone. Be polite. They may smell. Look strange or act in ways you don’t like, but don’t be aggressive or call the police.” 

Pacltová agreed: “Many people without a home have negative experiences with society. People look through them. If you are rushing past the same person on your way to work every day, maybe leave 10 minutes earlier so you can have a chat with them. Don’t approach with fear, as they will be able to tell.” 

Other practical things you can do include: 

  • Research; Look at initiatives in your area; they may need volunteers. Many of which are bottom-up, such as Food Not Bombs and Cakes Not Bombs – put your lockdown baking skills to good use! 
  • The City Council prints a guide with the addresses of services, but this isn’t regularly updated – so it is best to go directly to smaller digital services. 
  • Místní místním is an NGO which has built a network of support. Every Sunday they distribute around 150 masks, 50 disinfectors, 60 baguettes, and other food to people on the streets of Prague. You can donate here
  • As part of a Christmas event, they are also baking cookies for people without a home, to bring them a bit of joy for the holiday that can be tough and lonely for many. You can help with your money or your time. 
  • Google the Mapa Bezdomova (Map without a home), which shows where facilities such as WC’s, day centres, and health centres are in Prague. 
  • If they are injured, check they are responsive and call an ambulance if necessary. 
  • Take them for a coffee, or to a public library with computer access. 
  • Donate. There are many different initiatives across the city. Nocleženka is a voucher for a homeless person to spend one night in a Salvation Army shelter, which includes hot food and drink and access to the facilities. It costs 100 crowns. You will receive an email when somebody uses the voucher. 
  • You don’t have to donate money. You can donate clothes, which is especially important now, as people can die in freezing temperatures. Wrap a scarf around a tree or leave a coat on a bench if you wish, but it is best to go directly to a shelter, or clothes collection points across the city. Prague Thrift Store and The Veřejná šatní skříň (public wardrobe) also take donations. You can find more specific addresses – and the full event – here.
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