Vol 1, No 21
15 November 1999
C I T I E S:
From Precariousness to Disaffection:
The homeless in Prague
Isabelle Le Rouzic
The "wandering phenomenon," or homelessness (1), is perceived as a relatively marginal problem in the Czech Republic. The public, their political representatives and the media simply refuse to address it.
Some journalistic enquiries made during the intensification of the problem in 1997 and 1998 resulted in articles and TV coverage that was more sensational than objective. This kind of reportage discredits the homeless by presenting an image of them as people who live voluntarily on the margins of society - people who do not want to work and do not try to "integrate themselves" into society.
Czech researchers have not challenged these stereotypes; this is partly due to the lack of attention given to this question.
But it is nevertheless true that the homeless are more and more visible and that their situation seems to be getting worse, particularly that of older people. They inhabit the streets of Prague - places where there are big crowds: the train-stations and the passages of the metro. Sometimes, they gather in groups, especially when they are younger, and wander with their dogs. This particular section of the homeless population in Prague is the most recent; it has its parallel in France, in cities like Paris and Rennes.
Prague's homeless are very conspicuous, and the degradation of their appearance conditions their relations with the rest of the population. They move from their usual spots (such as Narodni trida in the centre of Prague) to the assistance centres, sometimes rummaging in bins looking for bottles or food, or begging.
The lures and dangers of Prague
As an economic capital with a low rate of unemployment, Prague attracts a great number of people looking for work and success; often, these new migrants face serious difficulties. They do not know the city well and inevitably do not have the acquaintances who might make the transition easier. Their migration is an adventure and a risk. Facing the impossibility of finding a flat and the difficulty of getting regular work, they sometimes get to experience homelessness all too quickly.
With its tourist activity and assistance centres, Prague can provide them with help for their basic needs. The multitudes who visit this town every day represent a potential "market" for some of the homeless. Tourists flock in a predictable manner to specific places in town, and beggars do not face any difficulties appealing to them.
Begging is a recent phenomenon in Prague. A few years ago, this practice did exist, but it was concentrated in certain discreet places, such the central train-station (Hlavni nadrazi). This practice was limited a la rencontre, to use the term elaborated by the French sociologist Pascale Pichon (2).
People who beg a la rencontre are less visible than those who beg in the metro or on the streets and adopt the humble attitude of a person totally dependent on the generosity of the passer-by. Those resorting to this kind of begging in order to obtain an income sufficient for the day are more and more numerous, and also more visible. It is important to emphasise, however, that the people who beg represent a very small portion of the homeless population. They constitute the lowest level of this "social category."
Even today, beggars seem to be relatively few in number. During my research, I have not met many individuals who have resorted to begging though it is possible that those individuals who had were reluctant to admit it in interviews with me.
The housing problem
Housing problems are frequently the first cause of "wandering." The United States offers us one of the most striking examples. According to Marcuse (3), the maintenance and development of low-rent housing in the United States is not profitable enough, either for the private or the public housing market. The improvement of dwellings is carried out to the detriment of the poor, who then cannot afford to rent the refurbished accommodation. Marcuse emphasises that homelessness exists not because something is malfunctioning in society, but, on the contrary, because the system functions as expected.
The post-Communist transformation in the Czech Republic has strongly modified the Czech housing market, especially in Prague and primarily due to the privatisation and restitution processes (4). It is undeniable that there is a decrease in the availability of low-rent housing in the Czech Republic, but the Czech situation differs from to that in the United States. In the Czech Republic the drop is due to the specific processes of economic transformation rather than the absence of social protections regarding housing (although these have become relatively weak since the liberalisation of rents).
It appears that for the new owners the maintenance of low rents is simply not profitable; in addition, the Czech government does not involve itself in the construction of low-rent housing which might counterbalance the deficiency caused by restitution and privatisation. The liberalisation of rent prices, the weakness of social guarantees and the decrease in construction of low-rent housing always aggravate the problem of homelessness.
The absence of proper housing, which would make a "normal" working life possible, which would allow one to wash, to cook, to have an address for documents, is critical. And, of course, people without a stable home can hardly find a safe place to spend the night, and the cold weather becomes their greatest enemy. Usually, they sleep in the central train station, in parked train cars and in the warmer night trams. Sometimes, they find refuge in makeshift housing. Occasionally, they squat in some dilapidated building or take a bedroom for a night in the accommodation centre.
The Nadeje Assistance Centre in Prague
Between January and November 1997, I conducted about forty interviews with homeless people at the Nadeje centre (nadeje is the Czech word for "hope"). Nadeje has existed since 1991, when the initial impulse for the establishment of the centre was the provision of assistance to Romanian refugees. The centre is in Prague, not far from the central train station.
This non-political organisation offers various services to those it considers the most destitute. It provides hot meals three times a day, clothes, bathing facilities and some accommodation for the night. Nadeje also provides administrative help for those seeking work and housing, and in the process of obtaining documents and social aid from the State. It has also created some homes for pensioners, handicapped people and drug addicts. It intends to extend its activities to other towns, but, for the moment, only the Czech capital has a reception structure for homeless persons.
In addition to material and administrative help, this organisation supplies what it calls "Christian spiritual help." Nadeje conducts some religion classes and masses, with a Catholic inspiration.
The organisation survives essentially on the basis of private donations (food, construction material, clothes), although for a few years now, the Czech government and the city of Prague have provided fifty per cent of its funds. Each of Nadeje's "clients" is registered at the centre and receives a card stating his or her identity. For those who cannot provide written proof of identity (a national identity card or birth certificate, for example), the centre carries out a verification at the police station. This document gives the clients access to the services of the Nadeje centre.
Profile of the homeless population
The homeless population in the Czech Republic has been estimated at about 35,000; that is, approximately 0.35% of the total population (5). That would make them, proportionately, half as numerous as the homeless in the average West European country (6). As a general rule, however, it is very hard to approach and quantify this population. It is mobile and does not make systematic use of the social centres which try to keep track of them. Therefore, large variations exist among the different organisations which have carried out censuses (7).
In the Czech republic, homeless women represent 10 to 15% of the homeless population (8). This proportion is about the same as in France and in some other countries, where it is a generally established rule that the homeless are usually men (9). The reasons for this are numerous and varied; however, it is often thought that it is more difficult for a woman to live in the streets without becoming part of a prostitution network. But, above all, there are institutions that welcome women and children only, and they exist both in France and in the Czech Republic.
In addition, as Charles Soulie has emphasised (10), the place of the woman in the matrimonial market seems to play an important role. A woman can more often find someone to take care of her and to provide for her needs and thus reduce the risks of becoming homeless. Also, the social benefits given to single parents who raise a child make it easier for single mothers to cope with the different difficulties.
As a result. most of the individuals who frequent the Nadeje centre, that is, 72% of them, are men. Occasionally, they rent a room at Nadeje for one night or a week, up to a maximum of fifteen days. One night costs five crowns; this is not expensive at all, but it can be difficult to acquire the amount necessary to pay for one week. The other people I interviewed had some precarious, makeshift housing at their disposal.
According to the Nadeje centre, homeless people tend to be between 20 and 50 years of age (11); however, the homeless men I interviewed were all between 25 and 35. A significant number of individuals are in the forty-to-fifty age bracket, but the older people politely, yet firmly, declined my invitation to talk.
Regarding their occupational history, before 1989, some of the homeless had held various jobs. In the Soviet-style societies, it was almost impossible if not outright illegal to be unemployed, and, although the State frowned on it, changing jobs was not too difficult. The people I met were often poorly qualified, and their attempt to find work was concentrated on more traditional sectors such as building construction. In terms of education, they usually have, at best, a vocational apprenticeship diploma. Their occupational experiences are diverse and not always directly linked to their training.
The majority are not the long-term unemployed nor are they unemployable. Only 20 per cent are not actively looking for work, either being past retirement age, holding an invalid's pension or still actually holding a job, even if it is a rather uncertain one.
The working homeless have precarious jobs that may last only days or weeks; they have not been rejected by the labour market, but they move in a sphere where workers are hired on a temporary basis. They have to accept precarious jobs that are often physically demanding and illegal. These unstable jobs have a detrimental effect on their access to housing and also their family life. They usually do not believe that it is complicated to get a job; the greatest difficulty is to find a job that is long-term, with a salary that would enable them to pay rent.
Almost all the homeless complain about their lack of documents. Sometimes, their possessions have been stolen, or their papers are no longer valid, and this constitutes a serious problem when they are looking for jobs.
After Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a number of nationality problems arose. Not all the individuals living on Czech territory were able to obtain Czech citizenship, which was granted on the basis of family and social background; that is, on the basis of the parents' place of birth and of the individual's standing before the law. Those with Slovak parents and those with a criminal record faced difficulties acquiring Czech citizenship, which was sometimes refused to individuals who had lived their entire lives on the Czech side of the new border.
Alcoholism or drug addiction also worsen the conditions in which the homeless live. Health problems are frequently mentioned as an explanation for the difficulties they have fulfilling obligations at work and adapting to their situation. As a consequence, they have a low income or no income at all, and without a stable address they cannot receive the State unemployment benefit.
The social network of the homeless
The homeless are often relatively isolated and have a limited network of family and friends. Only the women I met said they were in relationships. Separated or divorced, they sometimes begin a new life with someone they have met in the help centre.
All the men I spoke to said they had no partner. In more than one out of three cases, this is the direct result of a break-up, and, sometimes, this is the reason they have come to Prague.
But as a general rule, it is hope for a better situation or a higher salary that induced them to leave their place of origin; their presence in the capital is most often the result of a recent migration. Almost half of them have been in Prague for a year; but only 12% have been here since 1989; 24 % have been here for less than seven months.
Most of them come from an economically and socially weak, or disadvantaged background. Their parents tend to be workers who had many children. Some of them grew up in correctional centres or orphanages. At present, their relations with their parents and siblings are usually ruptured. In most of the cases, the individuals are remote both geographically and emotionally from their families - either from their parents or from former partners, as well as from their children.
A sense of embarrassment may keep them from contacting their families. They don't want to be a burden. They don't want to be seen in these conditions - without work, without housing and without money.
Their material difficulties, in part, come from their geographical isolation and their lack of strong family ties. It is a vicious circle: the separation from their family worsens their situation, and their dire situation stands in the way of creating strong family relations.
Old friends reject and are rejected
Old friendship networks are damaged in a similar manner; old friends slowly disappear as geographic and social barriers increase. Usually, the current acquaintances of the homeless come from the same group of people seeking assistance.
The homeless I interviewed emphasised the complexity of the evolution of their social relations. Before 1989, everything had appeared simple to them: everybody seemed to share the same status and a great solidarity seemed to exist.
Interestingly, it is most often their refusal to reveal their dismal situation that makes them actually prefer this split with old friends. Even when the loss of contact is not caused by the friends themselves, embarrassment and a feeling of inferiority sometimes develops among the homeless which can make them bitter and critical of all forms of success which elude them.
The avoidance strategies practised by friends aggravate the homeless person's sense of defeat and membership in a group of stigmatised people. The isolation that the homeless sometimes impose on themselves feeds these conflicting relations. They feel better when they are alone or with other homeless people.
Then again, the people who frequent the social centres often perceive one another negatively. This is a matter of personal re-evaluation strategies that allow them to distinguish themselves on the basis of stigmas they believe do not apply to them. The difficulty of their common situation does not result in a feeling of solidarity, and they sometimes reject contact with other homeless at the centres. This attitude is strong in part because the group of people with whom the homeless person associates does not represent a positive reference for him or her.
I'm OK, you're not
This attitude is also manifest in the contacts the homeless have with social institutions. The individual who wants to escape from the stigma of the negative image of the "assisted, homeless person" tries to avoid contact with social institutions, or to justify the help he or she receives by describing it as the result of a very specific situation. For example, someone who is retired or handicapped may perceive the aid he or she receives is legitimate, while maintaining that others who receive the same aid are abusing the system.
In some cases, the legitimate right to assistance due to an inability to work can overcome the individual's sense of isolation. When in such cases, the "assisted" status is internalised and accepted, the individual's respect for social workers, such as the employees or managers of centres, is more positive. Others, by contrast, accept the help of social institutions only as a last resort and look forward to the improvement of their situation, which will allow them to end their relation to the centres.
It is very difficult for many to accept assistance, and some only come to the centres to get food. Some homeless people reject the official "assisted" designation; they need help and accept it from institutions like Nadeje, but not from the State. They outright refuse to ask for the minimum benefit they could receive from the State.
Such individuals are more critical of official institutions and more virulent in their comments about Czech society. They still expect a great deal from life in this new society, and their dependence on the help centres disturbs them.
Visions of the future
The individuals I met were relatively young and had not been removed from the labour market for long. They believe that their lot will improve in the distant future; however, they remain doubtful about the immediate possibility of finding a good job and the long-term improvement of their situation. When I introduced the question of the future, most of them expressed a desire to work, find accommodation and eventually start a family.
There is some restraint in their answers; living day-to-day, one finds it hard to look too far into the future. But they generally see stable work as the guarantee of accommodation and a family life.
Some express the desire to travel and move to a foreign country. They speak of their experiences in the Czech Republic as if they were all failures, and they dream of being successful elsewhere; building a new life in another country sometimes seems to them the best solution. But most of the homeless want to remain in the Czech Republic.
Acceptance by the homeless
Those who accept help have usually more or less accepted their position; they have internalised their homeless status. They do not make many demands, nor do they have big projects for the future. Their social relations are weak or non-existent. Most often, their contacts are limited to those who ensure their survival: the social workers at the centres. The resort to these social institutions often represents their only social link.
All these elements contribute to a dark picture of a destitute situation, a series of ruptures, failure and isolation which finally project the subject into a kind of social "no-man's land" (12). These homeless people are no longer integrated into the system of the rest of society. They become a group apart, marginalised and excluded.
But not all the people I met had the same characteristics. I believe that all of them are currently in a phase of heightened vulnerability. However, their attitude, their understanding and acceptance of their situation determine their degree of social isolation. When they are young and unemployed only for a short time, they are not so pessimistic and expect their situation to improve.
In France, as in many other countries, people who live in the street are usually completely cut off from the world of employment. (I would like to indicate that I make a distinction between homeless people and those without a stable home.) In France less than 15% of the homeless state that they live in the street, in the metro or the train-stations (13), while in Prague, due to the lack of support structures, the rate is more than 70% (14).
Nonetheless, these persons still carry out some form of paid work, if in a sporadic manner. This fact helps to explain why these people do not feel completely excluded and have not entirely internalised the "marginalised status" of the homeless.
We should not forget, however, that they have not been homeless for long and that the boundaries between vulnerability and exclusion are weak. A prolonged period in the vulnerability zone, connected with a long period in the street, can lead to the complete sense of alienation which causes the final rupture of social ties.
Acceptance of the homeless
Now, the future of the homeless depends on the ability of Czech society to regulate their difficulties in the current transformation and to make a place for them. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the homeless question does not attract much interest in the Czech media.
The homeless believe they are generally perceived in a negative light by the society around them. A poll carried out in November 1995 revealed that the majority of the wider Czech population is very critical of the homeless (15). They believe that the homeless are responsible for their own situation, that they are not willing to work and that this lifestyle suits them (16). They believe that help for the homeless should come primarily from close relatives (33 per cent of the answers) and that charity associations can also play a role (22 per cent). The State is regarded as having less of a responsibility in this field (20 per cent).
While many Czechs expect to have some difficulties and believe that there is a contemporary poverty "problem" (17), they find it difficult to approve of State-sponsored social assistance for a part of the population they consider to be anti-social.
These views reveal the general ignorance of the issues involved. As in many other countries, this phenomenon meets with a lack of understanding, and it is not considered a polite topic of conversation. There is a general inability to integrate those on the margins.
When one regards the homeless as individuals who are living voluntarily on the margins, one can justify inaction. By denying the problem, one can take pleasure in the illusion of a successful transformation.
In the old days...
The homeless Czechs I spoke with believe that their situation was better before 1989, or that it has not changed much since then. They seem to be essentially disappointed by the present situation in their country. Even with the lack of freedom before 1989, they feel a certain nostalgia for the Communist period now because of increasing economic disparities, their own living conditions and a perceived deterioration of relations between individuals.
This nostalgia is accompanied by a relatively strong criticism of contemporary society. The people I met did not approve of the present political situation and felt excluded from the new economic market. They attributed their problems to the new mode of functioning in society, to the seeming impossibility of taking part in it.
It seems fair to say that, before 1989, these people were integrated into society, even those who had handicaps. They worked and derived the benefits of accommodation. They lived in a family and enjoyed a network of friends or relations. They had a place in the professional and familial sphere. It is thus not difficult to imagine that the old regime was actually better for them.
Of course, some individuals were more or less marginalised even before 1989, former prisoners and alcoholics, for example. Nevertheless, Communist society found a place for them. It refused to recognise disparities and, in this way, practised a kind of enforced political integration. That system functioned relatively well for the most socially and economically destitute people. Thus, the new social distinctions often appear to them illegitimate or immoral. They cannot fathom the indifference with which the current political sphere relates to them (ie with regard to the housing question) and pushes them out of the post-Communist transformation.
The existence of homelessness points towards one of the most notable failures of the transformation. It also demonstrates that it is not just the political and economic spheres which have changed, but the whole of Czech society has undergone transformation, and the homeless are the "losers" in this transition.
The people I questioned were almost all better off before 1989. Even if they experienced some difficulties under the old regime, the State intervened to stabilise their situation. Socialist society functioned as an implicit contract between the State and individuals: it expected them to accept and participate in the functioning of society and in return found them jobs, housing, benefits and a certain socio-familial balance.
Thus, while much of what the homeless were telling me in Prague was no different from what I might hear in Paris, London or New York, there is something different about the Czech situation. After the fall of the Communist system, people found they were given greater responsibility for themselves, and man did not always know how to adapt to that change. In contrast to the situation of the homeless in France or in other Western countries, one finds here more than a breakdown of individual lives (loss of work, loss of housing, alienation from family); here there is a rupture in the community itself.
Isabelle Le Rouzic, 15 November 1999
The author is a PhD candidate at the University Rennes II, France, under Professor Dominique Martin. She is currently carrying out research on the "excluded" groups in Czech society, concentrating on the homeless and the Roma in Prague.
1 Moreau de Bellain-Guillou, Les sans domicile-fixe: un phenomene d'errance, Paris, L'Harmattan,1995, p13.
2 Pichon, "Essai de typologie", in Problemes politiques et sociaux. "Les SDF", Sous la dir. Julien Damon, n 770, pp 24-28.
3 See: Peter Marcuse, "Les sans domicile fixe aux USA", in Pauvre et mal loge: les enjeux sociaux de l'habitat, Sous la dir. Dan Ferrand-Bechman, Paris, L'harmattan [Coll.Habitat et societes], pp 49-60.
4 See: J S Earle, S G. Gehlbach, Z Sakova and J Vecernik, "Mass privatisation, Distributive Politics, and Popular Support for the Reform in Czech Republic", in Working Papers, 1997, pp 22-26.
5 V and I Hradecti, Bezdomovsti: extremni vylouceni, Prague, Nadeje, 1996, p 95.
6 R Renard and G Van Mensel, Les sans-abri en Europe, FEANTSA, 1993; D Avramov, Les sans-abri dans l'Union Europeenne, FEANTSA, 1995.
7 H Thomas, La production des exclus: politiques sociales et processus de socialisation socio-politique, Paris, Presse Universitaire de France [PUF],
1997, pp 160-163.
8 See: Hradecti, p 95.
9 C Soulie, 'Le classement des sans-abri', in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales [Genese de la modernite], n 118, 1997, pp 69-80.
10 Soulie, 1997.
11 Hradecti, p 90.
12 R Castel, "De l'indigence a l'exclusion, la desaffiliation", in Face a l'exclusion : le modele francais, Sous la dir. Jacques Donzelot, Paris, Esprit [Societe], 1991, pp137-168, p 139.
13 Paugam, 1996, p 31.
14 Lidove noviny, 8 December 1998.
15 Amasia, Prazane o bezdomovcich, Agentura marketingovych a socialni informacnich analyz, sro, Prague, 1995.
16 Hradecti, 1996, p 14.
17 L Rabusik, "The Poverty of the Elderly - Myth or Reality?", in Czech Sociological Review, 1998, vol 6, n 1, pp 5-24, p 7.
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