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Homeless in Czechia: Falling Through the Cracks

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“No one willingly chooses to become homeless,” Olga Pek, director of the Jako Doma organisation for homeless women, emphatically tells BIRN.

By no one, she refers to the approximately 24,000 peoplecategorised as homeless in the Czech Republic, though it’s more realistic to talk about the 50,000-70,000 people currently living without a roof over their heads, according to unofficial estimates.

Pek also hints at the hundreds of thousands of Czechs who, as a result of the housing crisis and skyrocketing cost of living, find themselves at risk of losing their home.

While many homeless people live on the streets, about half frequently use some type of social and civic-run accommodation services, halfway houses or hostels, according to a study by the Labour and Social Research Institute. Many others are either hospitalised, residents in asylum homes or imprisoned – making their presence even less palpable to the general public.

“Since a 2013 peak, the number of homeless people using our services has been decreasing,” Daniel Svoboda, director of the Prague office of the NGO Nadeje (“Hope”) tells BIRN, pointing to the favourable economic climate and employment enjoyed by the Czech Republic in recent times.

But as their numbers dropped, Svoboda notes that those who kept coming were the most-at-risk, including seniors, people with health issues or those suffering from mental illness.

Homeless women, estimated at between 5,000 and 16,000 depending on the methodology used, are another highly vulnerable group whose specific needs were long overlooked by both social services and women’s rights organisations, according to Pek.

“Due to structural inequities, women more often fall into poverty, are subject to abuse, and this increases their risks of homelessness,” she explains. “Women on the streets have needs different from those of men – they often deal with the topics of sexual violence, menstruation, and hygiene, pregnancy and motherhood.”

Given their homelessness is often not as noticeable and due to bad experiences with men, they may avoid gender non-specific homeless services, she adds.

Homelessness on the rise again

Yet after years of dwindling numbers, preliminary reports suggest that people are once again being pushed out onto the streets. For the first time in over a decade, Nadeje saw a 7 per cent increase in the numbers of needy in 2021, followed by another 25 per cent increase in 2022.

Nadeje’s Svoboda expects further growth in the numbers during the coming 2023/24 winter season, pointing out that a few years’ gap commonly exists between the onset of an economic downturn and an observable rise in homelessness. “It’s interesting that our colleagues working in the poorer border regions have already registered higher growth of homeless people,” he says.

People working on the front lines are already witnessing added demand for their services, mainly as a result of the pandemic and rising cost of living. Last winter, NGOs and municipal facilities across Czechia had already warned of overcapacity and growing queues as more people were pushed to seek alternative services because of significantly higher energy costs and freezing temperatures.

“We have about 60 new homeless people a month,” Svoboda told Czech Radioin November. “People who did not come in the past are coming now because they lived in hostels or shared or rented housing, and now they no longer have the financial means to pay for such housing.”

By early 2023, many homeless shelters or emergency housing facilities were filling up, including temporary hostels set up by Prague city hall in unused buildings.

“Every winter, we increase our capacities in our social services,” Jitka Modlitbova from the Czech Salvation Army told Czech Radio. “This applies to our night shelter and our day centres, [which remain open] during the night so people in need can come inside and spend the night on so-called ‘warm chairs’.”

The arrival of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees since Russia’s invasion in February 2022 has put additional strain on social services and volunteers’ organisations, and sparked tensions in some facilities.

“In some day centres, clients don’t like hearing the Ukrainian or Russian language. There seems to be some concern that capacities destined to solving their situation” will be further limited because of Ukrainian refugees seeking similar support, Svoboda tells BIRN.

After another year of lower economic growth and double-digit inflation rates, last winter may have been just a warning shot.

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