Talking Point Controversy reigns around camp for hard core homeless

31-08-2010 12:01 | Chris Johnstone

A storm of outrage erupted in mid August when Prague city council gave the green light for a camp to be created for the capital’s homeless. Human rights groups said it was a throwback to a darker era, non-profit groups argued the step would simply not work. This week’s Talking Point looks at the arguments stirred up about the homeless camp.

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The idea for a camp for the hard core cases of homelessness has been championed by the Civic Democrat councillor who has taken a lead in dealing with the problem over the last few years, Jiří Janeček.

Prague is estimated to have 3,000 to 3,500 homeless people. Municipal shelters and shelters run by charities can cater for most of these, Mr. Janeček says. The problem is a hard core of homeless people who are turned away from centres because they are drunk. He says they congregate in the centre of the city or on trams and in the metro system bothering citizens and tourists.

This is how he explained the main reasoning behind the camp: “The main reason is to prevent the homeless who are not in shelters because of their drunken state from going into parks or on the public transport system of the city where they run into children and other citizens. It is to give them an alternative to parks where they risk being frozen at night, so they can go happily to such an establishment. The priority is to get these people out of the parks and away from the transport network and to places where they could be better cared for than the places where they are at the moment.”

In the initial uproar over the idea, details of how the system would work in practice were missed out. Here Mr. Janeček explains some of the bare bones.

Jiří JanečekJiří Janeček “First of all, a minibus would go round Prague, to the places which we know are the localities where these homeless people barred from going into shelters are. And it would collect these people who are refused entry because of their alcoholism. At the centre there will be a health worker, people giving out daily portions of soup and drinks and a social worker. I hope we will not need some security agency presence, but if need be there will be that security presence as well. The homeless will be in tents or single-cells depending on the weather. They can simply stay there and no-one will chase them away or expel them.”

The idea does appear to contain a degree of coercion even though Mr. Janeček admits that the homeless cannot be forced out of the city centre into a camp.

“We of course are trying to make the homeless who roam around the centre and do not want to be reintegrated to understand over time that they will be better off there. We will step up the number of checks. The checks are aimed at making sure the homeless do not make a nuisance of themselves. Of course, within the framework of the existing law we cannot force them to move. But if we visit them 20 times a day they will come to understand that they would be better off somewhere else.”

That has done nothing to calm attacks from critics. Eduarda Heczková of the charity Dům Agapé is one of them.

“These drunken homeless have the right to go where they want if they do not create any kind of disturbance. And if they do that then they should be treated like everyone else and detained in a special cell not be sent off to some collection camp. Here you are making a distinction between ordinary people sent to such cells and the homeless sent to a collection camp.”

Even so, she admits that her charity which provides shelter for the homeless does not take in those that are drunk. But she says that Prague city council is completely on the wrong track. If forced into the camp, she says they will just wander back to the city centre because that is where they can get occasional work, beg and can search bins. She suggests Prague council should seek inspiration from how care for the homeless is organized in West European countries.

Funnily enough, one of the main Czech charities dealing with the homeless, the Salvation Army, is twinned with its sister organisation in the Netherlands. There, an integrated national plan was decided upon by the central government, main cities, charities and housing organizations following a conference in 2006.

The Salvation Army’s head of policy, Jeroen Hoogteijling, describes what was decided.

“A plan of action was put forward out of that conference. And that project was to last seven years from 2006 to 2013 with the ambition that in these seven years the estimated 10,000 homeless people in the four big cities in the Netherlands would be provided with help, housing, income and work. These were the four main pillars.”

The approach was expensive but it has already been judged a success and extended by one year to 2014. The programme sought to get to grips with the problems of even the worst victims of homelessness.

“Specific centres and facilities were created for the people who had a combination of problems. They were criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts and had psychiatric problems. Special centres were created for these people. Now and then they were in and out of prison and they were on the streets and so on.”

He admits that there have been rogue elements like those targeted by Mr. Janeček in Prague. But these are being catered for as well.

“There is a category of homeless people we call them desperados. They have literally nothing to lose any more. They do not care if they are caught by the police and have to go to jail for another month because they have simply nothing to lose. They are not easy to seduce so that we can provide them with care.

The idea here, is to provide them also with accommodation, a job and care so that they once again have something to lose.”

The contrast with the situation in Prague, indeed the Czech Republic is stark. First of all, there is no national programme or strategy for dealing with the homeless. That is a point Councillor Janeček regrets given the fact that many of the capital’s homeless are not from the city and fairly often are not even Czech.

“There is nothing about this in the government programme. The government has not occupied itself with this issue, it has left the problem to towns and cities. So there is no coordination at all at a national level or even for the capital, which is a pity. I tried to get some law adopted that would put the responsibility for this onto the regions. It is not at all a priority for this government or past governments that is why we tried to deal with it at a regional level.”

To be fair to the Prague councillor heading the city’s social policy, Prague’s homeless policy covers more than the proposed camp and does seek to encourage the homeless to rejoin society. He protests that the camp is just five percent of homeless policy.

In parallel, an integration programme has already been operating for around three years. This teaches the homeless people to live again and work in society. It includes the incentive of city council flats which can be rented for a year and a voluntary monitoring programme that keeps tabs on them long after they are no longer officially homeless.

Mr. Janeček says around 500 homeless people were successfully reintegrated last year.

But the initial budget of 6.0 million crowns does not look like being enough to attract or keep the homeless there let alone provide much support or help.

Steve Berg is the vice president for programmes and policy at the non-profit National Alliance to End Homelessness in the United States. He says out of town camps are an idea that have largely been discredited in the US.

Photo: European CommissionPhoto: European Commission “The focus has got to be on housing if it is going to be about solutions. The idea that you are just going to get homeless people to go somewhere else just to get them out part of the city where they want to be has just proved not to work over and over again.”

If there is a place for camps or centres it is only a limited one as part of a bigger solution and then there are some telling questions to pose about them.

“The places that are really serious about solving the problem will adopt polices like nobody stays in this shelter for more than 30 days. In 30 days they have to be out of the shelter and into a stable housing situation. If they are making that kind of commitment then I would say that is something that is serious about working. If there is no time frame and people are allowed to languish there as long as they have nowhere else to go then that tells me then that tells me they are not really serious about solving the problem.”

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