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Homeless shelters get a boost

Donor helps city bolster resources ahead of winter's worst

Posted: January 4, 2012

By Markéta Hulpachová - For the Post | Comments (1) | Post comment

Homeless shelters get a boost

Walter Novak

On a recent visit, 180 people were seeking refuge at the Hermes shelter on the Vltava River.

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When entrepreneur Dalibor Dědek contacted City Hall social workers in December and told them his company wished to give a Christmas present to Prague's homeless, Jana Tomešová was incredulous. As deputy director of the city-funded Prague Social Services Center (PCSS), she had been bracing for another winter of hypothermia deaths and overcrowding in city-run shelters.

"He said he wanted to be our Santa this year, and asked us what we most needed," she recalled. "Usually, donors talk about making donations in the thousands of crowns, but he was talking about millions. We thought he'd gone crazy."

In the end, Dědek's private security firm Jablotron purchased an inflatable, 648-square meter tennis hall complete with basic hygiene facilities. The hall's future location remains unconfirmed, though several sources put the likely location as Rohanský Island on the Vltava River. It will be divided into men's and women's sections and transformed into a makeshift dormitory for the homeless.

The project will add an extra 100 beds to the overall capacity of the city's homeless shelters - a 25 percent increase - and thus alleviate the chronic overcrowding that plagues city social workers each winter. According to the 2011 census, there are some 4,000 homeless people in Prague, with about 1,500 considered to be consistently living on street.  

City homeless shelters are able to accommodate just a fraction of the homeless population. During cold spells, local NGOs and City Hall implement emergency measures to make more room, often leading to what Tomešová termed "inhumane conditions," with sleeping residents curled up in chairs and on floors, and overusing lavatories.

"In freezing weather, all of the homeless centers in the city unite and work together," Tomešová said. "The day centers turn into shelters, and our street team works around the clock, distributing clothes and tea."

Even such efforts are at times inadequate, however. During last year's unusually cold winter, 22 homeless people froze to death on the streets of Prague. This season, despite unseasonably warm temperatures, six people have died since October, according to Prague Emergency Medical Services. In New York City, a city some 10 times larger than Prague, with a total of 36,000 homeless people, between one and three homeless freeze to death each year.

In Prague, where recent years have seen a number of unorthodox proposals for aiding the capital city's homeless population, the tennis hall is a much-welcomed donation. City Hall has agreed to fund the new shelter's monthly operation costs, which Tomešová expects will surpass some 1 million Kč.

Prague City Councilor Ivan Kabický, who oversees City Hall social service programs, declined to comment for this report.  

Although the PCSS had expected to have the hall up and running by the end of January, city planners remain in conflict with various Prague municipalities, the leaders of which are wary of upsetting voters by bringing a homeless shelter to their neighborhoods, Tomešová said.

"We are trying to find a secluded spot that would not bother anyone," she added.

One out-of-the way location under consideration is the aforementioned Rohanský ostrov, a deserted industrial zone on the banks of the Vltava River in Prague 8. The flood-damaged area has the additional advantage of being near the city center, where the city's homeless often congregate.

In 2010, City Hall raised controversy with a proposal to round up the homeless and transport them to a special camp on the edge of the city. Aside from raising ethical concerns, social workers objected that the now-scrapped proposal was not in keeping with the homeless lifestyle.

"If we tried building something on the outskirts, clients simply wouldn't go," Tomešová said.

Down and out

At present, those looking for a warm place to spend the night usually head for Hermes, a boat docked below the Štefánik Bridge in Prague 7. In 2005, City Hall renovated this former cargo ship into a dormitory and donated it to the PCSS.

With 233 beds, the floating homeless shelter is now the city's largest and busiest, Tomešová said. Its location on the Vltava saved city planners from having to deal with reluctant municipal governments, but often presents a problem in late winter, when the boat has to be moved to an emergency port because of rising water levels, she added.

Despite mild temperatures, the boat was at near capacity during a New Year's Day visit by The Prague Post. Around 180 clients filed into the shelter during evening hours. Some showered and went directly to bed, while others drank tea and shared what food they'd managed to scrounge together, watching a classic Czech children's film on a dining-area TV screen.

To enter the boat, clients are required to take a breathalyzer test and pay a 20 Kč entrance fee. If a state of emergency is declared during cold weather, the shelter waves its zero-tolerance alcohol policy, as well as the fee, Tomešová said.

"On the street, you can make 20 Kč just by collecting paper for recycling and still have more to spare for food," said Josef Riedl, 64, who has been homeless for 16 years after losing his apartment during restitution. "I'm happy to have a place to sleep and take a shower."

Along with these necessities, the shelter provides medical care and counseling services meant to help reintegrate clients back into society. Riedl, who has been a regular lodger at Hermes for nearly a year, is now working with on-staff social workers to access pension and disability payments. He suffers from chronic heart problems and said he hopes to find a home in one of the city's subsidized apartments in the coming months.

Aside from disabled clients like Riedl, the boat accommodates seasonal workers who have trouble finding employment during winter months.

"Local employers typically refuse to hire anyone with a criminal record, even for menial jobs like street cleaning or collecting trash," Tomešová said.

Anna Zubejová, a 43-year-old victim of domestic violence, sought shelter at Hermes after being laid off from work at a construction site.

"I want to find a job as soon as possible: laying bricks, cleaning, anything," she said. "But right now, I'm not having much luck."

In a sea of social dilemmas, the tennis hall is a small but significant contribution. With forecasts of a slowed economy and increased unemployment, such donations may be a sign of increased public awareness about homelessness, Tomešová said.

"People are beginning to understand that homelessness is a problem that is here to stay, and that it could happen to any one of us," she said.

Markéta Hulpachová can be reached at

Tags: prague homeless, prague city hall, dalibor dedek, pcss, homeless shelters, homeless boat.

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