Panorama Salvation Army focusing on prevention programs for people threatened by poverty
October 17th is international day for the eradication of poverty and this year it is more than just a formal acknowledgment of a global problem. According to statistics a million Czechs are now threatened by poverty and 400,000 are living in extreme poverty. The Czech government recently unveiled the country’s first ever national strategy for the homeless of whom there are 30,000 people in the Czech Republic and underscored the need for social housing. For this week’s edition of Panorama I spoke to Pavla Vopelakova of the Salvation Army about the rise in poverty in the Czech Republic.
“We get to see many people who are really living on the edge. We cannot really confirm that their numbers are increasing because we have been working at full capacity for many years, but we do see it in our in-day clients who come to our prevention programs and the amount of consultations we give people.”
In many EU countries we see that the poor are getting poorer and the rich richer – that the gap is widening – is that the case here?
“Yes, this is clearly visible, that there is a huge difference between those living at the upper end of society and those dependant on social benefits and therefore living from one day to the next. They even have to take different loans to cover their daily expenses.”
Apart from helping the homeless, is the Salvation Army also assisting those at risk of slipping below the poverty line, people at risk of losing their homes and those who are short of food?
“Yes, definitely, at present there are about 30,000 homeless people in the Czech Republic and another 100,000 are at risk of becoming homeless in the very near future and one way of preventing this is to give these people support before they become homeless. Prevention is also much cheaper than helping people already on the street to return to a normal life through a hostel or social institution. Prevention at an early stage is about seven times more expensive than dealing with the consequences.”
So what kind of help do you offer them?
“It is on various levels. Obviously we help families who are threatened with distraint, we help them liaise regarding the debts they may have, we talk to the owner of the accommodation –whether it belongs to the municipality or is in private hands – we try to help arrange a payment calendar so that people can repay their debts on energy supplies or rent. We help people to find jobs even though that is really difficult now because unemployment is growing especially in Ostrava and the other industrial areas and also people can come to our centers for psychological but also legal support so that they know what to do – in short we are there to give them support whether it is practical advice or spiritual and emotional support.”
Who are your clients? Single parents? Older people?
“Basically it is both – single families whether it be a father or mother with children, also families with two or more children, but also more seniors are getting into problems where they need extra help and support.”
There is no social housing in the Czech Republic for the present time – is that aggravating the problem?
“Yes, definitely. There is a lack of financially affordable housing which is a big problem because some of our seniors are living in large flats owned by the municipality –flats which are essentially too big for their needs –but there are no smaller replacement flats available. The rent is often not affordable for these people, especially if they are living on one income. The same situation goes for single parents where again there is just one income to cover living expenses and if that income is missing due to illness or unemployment then things can get very difficult indeed.”
“Well, in this area we are trying to cooperate with local municipalities because it is their duty to look after the people living in their district. So at the moment we have 80 training flats and some clients at risk of becoming homeless go to these training flats where they are supported and supervised by our social workers in things like paying the rent on time, keeping on good relations with one’s neighbours and so on. So they get this support which at the beginning can be once a week, then it can be once a month until they are completely self-reliant and able to handle things on their own after which the rental contract is transferred from the Salvation Army to the new tenant and the Salvation Army gets a new flat. And then there is another group of clients who go through our reintegration program –first through a hostel, then the training flat with support from our workers and if everything goes well then after one year or two years –it depends on the client – the flat is transferred to them and we receive a new one. I think this system would be really helpful in other cities as well because then the municipality gets a client who is reliable, who is able to look after him/herself, who pays the rent on time.”
The government recently unveiled a long-term strategy for the homeless which you helped to draft – are you happy with it?
“Yes, we are happy with it because we were actually able to use our experience, our concept of social housing and we were able to “sell” this information to the ministry over a period of five years when this strategy was in the making. So, yes, we are very happy with the concept –the only question is whether it will be put into practice. So next year or in two years’ time we can come back to this and see how things are. At this moment I can say that if it all works out, if all the steps are taken, then it should make a big difference.”
Poverty is something that people are often ashamed of. Do you feel that many people leave it too late to ask for help in terms of handling finances or addressing a housing problem?
“Definitely, this is something people are not proud of and some people are too slow to say “look we are getting into trouble” and I think that people have to pluck up the courage to ask someone for help in dealing with the situation. Moreover, poverty tends to go hand in hand with a lack of -or low -education so for these people the social contact with institutions is often complicated and also these people are generally not used to planning for the future. They live from one monthly salary to the next and find it hard to look or plan further ahead. So we have to be proactive in this area and try to ask them the right questions so that we can help them sort out the future.”
Is there also a lot of prejudice around in society –such as that people out of work usually do not want to get a job and so on?
“Yes, that is a big myth about the unemployed –that they are lazy, that they do not want to do any work and that they just sit in public places, drink and abuse others. We can say from experience that homeless people are willing to work and want to get a job, but it should also be said that many of them are abused by potential employers. Many employers take advantage of their situation and say - Ok, come in for a fortnight and we will see if you are a good worker - and when the time passes they send them away without paying them. When that kind of situation repeats itself several times obviously these peoples’ motivation drops. Also these people are unstable, they are living in social institutions, some of them are sleeping rough or only using the night shelter and therefore the impression they make when asking for a job puts them at a disadvantage. And, because of the high unemployment, the employer usually picks someone else. So it is a myth that they are not willing to work, because we have different work programs for them and we have more people that we can provide jobs for.”