People at the street looking unkempt give a distorted picture of homelessness

27. 12. 2021

People at the street looking unkempt give a distorted picture of homelessness

The Caritas of the Archdiocese of Prague runs several social services for people without a home. „Many of our clients are motivated to take care of themselves. It is not a group of people we see on the streets in unkempt condition“, says Stanislav Fiala, director of the St. Theresa Shelter Home, disproving the myth of homelessness. He reveals how the social services managed to fight the coronavirus in the interview.

When we say poverty, most people imagine malnourished children in Africa. But how does poverty look in Czechia?
Poverty takes many forms in our country. In the St. Theresa Shelter Home, we work with people without a home and are really marked by poverty. Our clients often do not have financial resources for the necessities of life. Elderly experience poverty because of their low incomes during life and cannot afford to pay for their own accommodation. Single parents find themselves in a similar situation. 

During your career, have you encountered people who do not belong to these groups, but on the contrary, had a stable background, like education or job, but still ended up in reception centers or homeless shelters?
Yes, I have seen cases like that too, but most of them ended up as a result of multiple reasons. The reasons are very often psychological troubles and various addictions. There are fewer people with a stable background who end up completely without means because they have reliable social ties. They often find help from their family, close ones, or friends.

Do men or women who more often lose the roof over their head?
Some 70-75% of men find themselves on the streets. Our social system is a little more friendly towards women, or mothers in particular. When a mother with children gets into a difficult situation and is at risk of losing her housing, the mechanisms are set up in such a way that the system is able to provide them with relatively decent accommodation. In the Czech Republic, we have several shelters specifically for mothers, and there is also a system of benefits that are specifically targeted at both mother and child. Men have fewer options in this respect, which is why many more of them end up on the streets. However, there are some opportunities for help for them too.

What chance does a homeless person have to return to normal life?
There is always a chance to return to normal life, but in practice, the success rate is relatively low. However, we don´t have precise data, because we don´t know how are our clients doing after they leave us. It is a very individual matter. In general, we can say that the longer a person lives on the streets, the lower the chances to return to normal life is.  

First of all, there must be a motivation to return to normal life. All the social centers represent a helping hand and it is up to each person to decide whether they want to use it or whether it is within their power to accept the service. And if one finds a motivation, one can lose it quickly facing distraint. When one works, but the distrainors withhold most of the income, there is no money even for basic life necessities, and since it is often an endless process, there is no reason to keep trying. People who lost their papers also experience problems. 

Recently, an amendment to the distraint law, the Merciful Summer (debtors with a distraint order can pay only the principal sum without interest for three months), has been rolled out, which could give some people their motivation back. Do you have clients coming to you who you could help with their debt?
Now we are at the stage when colleagues from the Counselling center for people in need select clients who meet all the conditions for debt elimination. We are discussing if the new amendment will help our clients because it covers only certain kinds of debts. Merciful Summer can help eliminate the debt of e.g. 20 000 CZK, but if their remaining debt is a million CZK with a non-public institution, they will not get much help. Nevertheless, some people will not fall through the net and we will look after them in this regard. 

Isn´t it demotivating for you to see you can´t help many clients return to normal life whatever the reasons?
Of course, the optimal goal is to get the client out off the streets and into normal society, but we also consider it a success that he or she uses our services and is able to maintain a certain level of life thanks to them. I mean, they eat at our centers and don´t commit a criminal offense for food or go through trash instead. We are happy they have the motivation to take care of themselves.

Many of our clients are working. They mostly manage to find temporary or seasonal jobs. This is not a group of people that everyone usually sees on the streets in the unkempt state which is a very misrepresented idea about homelessness. Unfortunately, they are the most visible. Individuals who just drink on the sidewalks and have no interest in taking care of themselves don´t even visit us.

Do the same people come back to you, do you help them repeatedly?
About 50 % of our clients return to us periodically. There are more social services in Prague, so some of the people move elsewhere. We have been providing help to some clients for several years. Most of them are those who are facing personal or systematic limits. They cannot extricate out of them and it is unlikely they´ll succeed. 

Do you refuse to help some people due to capacity or other reasons?
We don´t accept everybody unconditionally. We are forced to refuse clients in reception centers-dormitories when it´s freezing. In winter there are no free beds in our centers. To avoid that we do not have to turn anyone away, we work with Prague City Hall on so-called winter measures, which include the operation of crisis night shelters. Clients for whom we have no room will be taken care of there. Nobody needs to stay on the streets during the night in winter. We want clients to come personally. The social worker takes them over and closes a contract with them. One night at the night shelter costs 40 crowns. 

The reception center has a waiting list. The applicant-client first apply for it, then we invite him/her to interview, which includes questions about how to deal with his/her financial situation. We ask for documentation and we want him/her to have regular income to pay for accommodation. The applicant must be able to cook, do the laundry and keep the apartment in a good condition and he/she must regularly come to meet with the social worker. We do not tolerate alcohol or inappropriate behavior towards housemates or our staff, and this applies to all our services. 

Do you receive sick people without a home?
We cannot take in those who can´t take care of themselves. Clients must be able to move, wash, shop for food or manage to walk up the stairs because there are no elevators. We send sick people to partner organizations that have beds set aside for the sick and we call the ambulance for emergency cases. Recently a client with cancer lived with us and he went regularly for chemotherapy. During my twenty years of working here, three people have died, all of them from sudden health complications. 

How did you respond to the situation when some clients got infected by covid-19?
Five of our clients got covid-19. When someone felt unwell and we suspected coronavirus infection, we got the client tested or sent him to the test center. When the test was positive, we sent the client to the specialized facility dedicated to covid positive clients without a home. 

We had quarantine ordered here three times for a total of fourteen days. Colleagues from the non-profit organization R-Mosty came here and tested all the clients. We must have limited a bit the low-threshold center to lower the movement of people, but at the same time, we tried to keep all of our services as functional as possible. It did cost us a lot of effort, but I think we managed the situation very well given the conditions. We managed to prevent the spread of the virus. 

St. Theresa Shelter Home

It is run by the Archdiocesan Charity of Prahy. It offers a wide range of services for people without a home. It provides them with accommodation in two/three bedrooms for six months. There is also a dormitory, a low-threshold center, which includes a canteen and facilities for personal hygiene. The St. Theresa Shelter Home also runs an in-the-field service and Counselling Centre for people in social need. 

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