Winter refuge opens doors to homeless


According to experts, there are around 3,500 people sleeping rough in the Czech capital. Homelessness and the problems related to it are still a relatively new phenomenon in Czech society. Big cities, especially Prague, had to learn fast to face the reality, and together with charities and non-governmental organisations are trying to offer at least temporary help where they cannot provide a long-term solution. Their help is most crucial in winter, which is the most dangerous time of year for homeless people, going without the basic needs of food, warmth, shelter and companionship.

Jaroslav Urban is showing me around a two-storey, 19th century building in Spytihnevova Street in the Prague district of Nusle. Small rooms, with two or three bunk beds each, a TV room, and a shower and toilet on every floor. "Only basic equipment," Jaroslav Urban describes the overnight winter shelter the city of Prague has been running for five years.

This year it opened its doors to the needy on Wednesday, a little later than usual, because until a few weeks ago it housed families whose homes were destroyed in the August floods. The shelter will operate until mid-April, providing a safe and warm place with a bed and companionship for fifty homeless men. Jaroslav Urban, who is in charge of the shelter, says it has a strict routine.

"Our shelter opens every day at 7 pm and closes at 7 am. Homeless men can come here in the evening and they're given accommodation for the night. They can stay here for three weeks at the longest. Smoking and alcohol are not allowed."

There is a standard fee, 10 crowns per night, the cost of a loaf of bread or a pack of chewing gum. The fee is symbolic, because the real cost of accommodation for one night, which includes heating, cleaning, electricity, water or clean bedding, is more than ten times higher. But as Jaroslav Urban says, it is important for his clients to feel they're actually paying for their stay, and they can always somehow scrape together that amount.

"A typical homeless man is divorced, in his forties, with only a basic education. Divorce is usually the trigger. At first the man packs his bags, leaves home, and for a while sleeps over at friends or in dormitories. Soon he finds himself on the street, jobless, with no money. There is nowhere to go, he gets entangled deeper and deeper in his problems, and it's harder and harder to find a solution."

Christmas can be a difficult time for people living alone, and the staff in Spytihnevova Street are ready to welcome more men on those days. The clients will get a hot meal and there will be a present for each - a bag full of new warm clothes.

Around Prague there are a number of all-year asylums and centres, which provide longer-term solutions, in an effort to help people move off the streets for good. The overnight winter shelter in Spytihnevova Street does not aspire to that. It is there simply to help rough-sleepers get through the bitter winter months safe and sound.