A few nights ago, as I was walking by Narodni Trida in the centre of the city, which is a popular hang-out spot for the homeless, a loud conversation caught my attention. The couple had made themselves comfortable on the floor close to the entrance of the metro and were fighting over a blanket, or some kind of a rug. The fight began to escalate, swear words filled the air. Then, the woman got up and screamed: "you know what, with people like you among us, it's no wonder that City Hall wants to ship us all away overnight."
I stopped and was tempted to ask the woman what she was referring to. But I was already late for a meeting and - I'm embarrassed to admit - didn't really have the courage to approach the two. After all, this was the place where a man was recently found on the floor with blood oozing out of his stab wounds. But that sentence stuck in my mind all night and it was not until I woke up the next morning that I realised what it was all about.
There are an estimated five to six thousand homeless people in the capital, of whom only several hundred have access to free or cheap accommodation. Even in winter, when charities and humanitarian organisations try to offer a warm place for the night, many have nowhere to go. They take refuge in train stations or heated night trams in order to battle the cold winter months. In late January, a tent city was set up in Prague by the army for another 100-200 people. But the 3-week camp cost the city over 30,000 dollars and could only be a temporary solution.
Facing a barrage of criticism from humanitarian organisations every winter, the City of Prague defends itself with the argument that it is hard to acquire buildings for homeless shelters as the city's districts don't want them there. But this week, City Hall announced that it has a new plan. Its Council, on Tuesday, decided to approach the Labour and Social Affairs Ministry with the request for a grant to acquire a ship, which could then be reconstructed and turned into a shelter on the Vltava River that runs through the city. The estimated 21 million crown project would offer 250 beds and a canteen with some 175 seats.
Hopefully not all of the city's homeless are as distrusting of the authorities as the woman I overheard the other night. If the rumour should go around that the city's actual motive is to ship its homeless population elsewhere, City Hall would have to take an unusual step - ask for another grant to hold a campaign to persuade the homeless that it will be safe to use the services of its 21 million crown "boatel".
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