Nine women sit around the table, engaged in a lively discussion. They wear clean, presentable attire. At first glance, nobody would guess them to be homeless. „Women go to greater lengths than men to conceal their homelessness,“ confirms Lucie Růžková, the director of the Parish Caritas of Prague 1 – Nové Město. These women spend the night wherever possible and often don’t know at noon whether they will have a bed for the night when the evening comes. They bivouac in public buildings, in provisional shelters on the outskirts of the city. During the winter, they flock to dormitories and shelters or ask acquaintances whether they could stay with them for a while.
For them, homelessness is a scarlet letter, better to remain hidden from sight – and not only because of mainstream society’s disapproval and judgment. They fear violence and harassment. „Being a homeless woman means you are in constant fear of what might happen,“ confesses 45-year-old Jana. „You have nowhere to hide, you constantly have to watch your stuff so no one will rob you, and you have to deal with other homeless people taunting you, often with a sexual subtext.“ For women on the street, the fear for their personal safety and the specter of rape is never far from their minds. They lack any privacy whatsoever. They also don’t have easy access to restrooms and showers. For these women, having their period is particularly stressful and humiliating, as they sometimes have to make do without personal sanitary products when the money runs out.
A women-only daytime center
For the past 15 years, the Prague 1 Parish Caritas has been making a point of specifically addressing the issue of female homelessness in particular. „Homeless women are extremely vulnerable, and they need a different form of assistance than men,“ explains Lucie Rybárová. „They often don’t feel safe at gender-inclusive social service facilities. Many women have experienced domestic violence or rape and carry that trauma with them, such that they are simply incapable of visiting a center that caters to both sexes. This was the motivation for us to create this women-only daytime center. It is the only one of its kind in the whole of Czech Republic. Women in need, women without a home, and women who lose the roof over their head – they can all leave their sorrows behind and find a moment of peace and safety within their troubled situation. The smaller capacity of this center actually plays to our advantage, as we are able to build a relationship of trust with each woman individually and offer her a helping hand and companionship as she takes steps towards resolving her situation.“
Aside from this daytime center, where women may do their laundry or change into a fresh set of clothes, take a shower, or get out of the freezing cold in the winter months, the Prague 1 Parish Caritas also runs a field program. Street workers reach out every day to meet with women on the streets, both at their regular hangouts and in new locations, and offer support and acceptance to those who would otherwise be utterly alone on the street, without a single soul to help them.
It is 5° Celsius outside, and temperatures dropped below the freezing point last night. The women at the daytime center clutch their mugs of hot tea for warmth. It is hard for them to open up and talk about themselves; they feel ashamed. „I have been coming to the Parish Caritas for about three years,“ Hanka confides in us. „I am glad to have a space where I can be emotional without restraint, in an environment where there are no men. I feel safe here.“