Around three hundred people gathered in Prague's St. Thomas Church on Thursday evening to receive final instructions before they scattered around the city in order to carry out what was to be the first ever census of homeless people in the Czech capital.
"My friend and I walked around a location where I know homeless people sleep among the trees and in small caves. When we were searching there, I was scared that someone would jump out and frighten me. But there was no one there. Then we found some homeless people in the pub and outside walking on the street."
Social worker Petra Kosova was one of the three hundred, most of them volunteers, who braved the cold of a mid-February evening to help carry out the unique project. Pairs or groups of three were each allotted a small district in which they were to count all homeless persons they encountered between 8 and 10 pm. There were 121 such districts.
"It was quite a task to walk through the whole district. We walked very fast, my legs are still hurting. I think we could have walked more than eight kilometres. Our district was Branik, which is a residential district. There are also parks and shrubberies. We found some people there but nobody among the villas. We saw eight homeless people altogether."
The phenomenon of homelessness is still relatively new to Czechs. The number of people sleeping rough in the Czech capital is estimated at anything between 3,500 and 10,000. To be able to offer more targeted assistance, the City of Prague needs a more accurate figure.
The census is a joint effort of the Municipal Centre for Social Services and several NGOs and charities catering for the homeless. The goal - to count how many homeless people there are on the streets of the Czech capital on a mid-winter night. Ilja Hradecky is the head of the charity organisation Nadeje or Hope.
"The method we used has its weak points. However, it was the only one we could use because more precise methods have to have a legal framework. For example the German method involves a consistent monitoring of homeless people throughout the year but it doesn't yield precise figures anyway. We can only make estimates. For example in the district I searched, there are places where homeless people live but they are on private property. Also, some homeless people dress just like anybody else, and you can't tell they're homeless if you don't know them personally. And these figures will be missing from our census."
The volunteers and social workers were given a simple form in which they recorded the number of homeless people they saw during the two hours, their sex and estimated age. No names or personal data were sought, nor the exact locations where they sleep. Even homeless people have a right to privacy, the organisers say.
Lenka Omelkova works for the Municipal Centre for Social Services. She explains that social workers and volunteers alone would not have been able to accomplish the whole thing.
"Among the volunteers were a number of homeless people who gave us tips of places we should not miss and also warned us of places where inexperienced volunteers should not go on their own. They were willing to go there themselves and give us the information. That helped us a lot. Especially the fact that they went to locations where other people could not go."
One of those assistants was Milan Gavlas. He browsed through the more dangerous zones, mainly parks.
"The problem was that many of the volunteers have no experience with those people. They can be very aggressive, especially if they have been drinking. The volunteers often do not know how to approach those people so it could even end badly. There was one case when a group of homeless people threatened to set a dog on the volunteers. I did not encounter any aggression, on the contrary. Two people even came forward and said here we are, you can record us."
Railway stations, empty carriages or deserted houses, those are the obvious places to look. Volunteers were also stationed at terminal stations of public transport lines, a popular refuge for homeless people in Prague. But as Lenka Omelkova of the Municipal Centre for Social Services points out, they are not the only places the homeless are to be found.
"That is the sensational part of the job - searching in public places, in parks or on public transport but we should not forget other important places: dormitories, shelters and day centres where these people gather. Also we cooperated with social workers in each district of Prague who know the people and are familiar with the locations. The social workers gave us figures as to how many of their clients are homeless and gave us tips where they might be sleeping, including those who spend nights on private property. It is widely known that for example people often live in garages with the consent of the owners, often in return for a service. They are looking after the place, for example."
The organisers all agree that the very first census of homeless people in Prague went smoothly. There were no incidents. The organisers politely asked the media to stay away on that night and not interfere. Now it will take them about two weeks to process the data. In a fortnight we will know the most precise estimate we can get, even though the numbers can never be completely accurate. The Municipal Centre and the NGOs are planning to adjust their services to the figures, if possible by next winter. Petra Kosova and her colleagues are already thinking about the next census...
"During the evening I was thinking about how to do it better next time. I would like to thank all the volunteers and participants. Their legs must be hurting too. We have learnt from our mistakes. It would be useful to repeat the project next year and one improvement I can think of right now would be to reduce the size of the districts."
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