A tent city for Prague's homeless


Letna Plain in Prague is best-known as a site of communist-era mass parades and outdoor concerts, but the extreme cold-snap of recent days has changed the face of Letna — there are now seven army tents on site, a temporary village for the city's homeless. The daily paper Mlada Fronta Dnes has compared the emergency shelter to a "MASH for the homeless." Linda Mastalir reports.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK Prague's current deep-freeze has inspired a first for the city: earlier this week the army set up 7 tents on Letna Plain, meant to provide 100 of Prague's homeless with relief from the bitter night-time cold. Equipped with wood-burning ovens and toilets, this emergency-relief operation is a unique sight in the Czech capital, where official census data counts 4500 people homeless, though social workers claim the numbers are twice that many. Meanwhile, shelters only provide 900 beds for the city's homeless. Jiri Wolf, spokesman for Prague's City Hall, explains why they decided to build a provisional tent city on Letna.

"This decision was made on the basis of a field survey and it became clear that some people without a roof over their heads don't have a place to go in these Arctic conditions. These people's lives were at risk, so the city administration decided to help them and organize an emergency shelter where they can spend the night."

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK After two nights up and running, it seems that the tent-city is a great success. Jiri Wolf told Radio Prague about how quickly the word has spread.

"The first night there were 65 people who stayed overnight, and last night 158 people stayed in the tent city. In each of these tents there are 20 cots, but since 150 people turned up last night, some did not get an individual cot to sleep on, so they shared and sat on the beds. The important thing is that they were in a warm place. It was impossible to accommodate another 40 people who arrived, so they were taken to overnight in a day-centre where there are only chairs and tables, but even this was surely helpful in their case."

Ten people have died in the Czech Republic as a result of freezing temperatures which have been hovering around -15C — and five of these casualties have been in Prague. The tent-city was inspired by a similar effort in Bratislava, the capital city of neighbouring Slovakia. Prague's facility is expected to stay in operation as long as the deep-freeze holds, roughly another week, perhaps two.

Run by the charitable organization, HOPE, and guarded by police, the site is only in operation during the night.

"There is a 12-hour regime, which means that they can arrive in the evening at 6:30pm when the facility begins accepting people, and their stay ends at 6:30am. Of course part of the service includes basic provisions, some soup, tea, and fruit. We decided on the 12-hour regime partly out of staffing considerations, but I think that by 6:30 in the morning they have the option of going to the various day-centres which open at 7:00am. It's all in line with how this aid works."