Homeless in the time of Corona: How the pandemic impacts those living on the streets of Prague

We are told to stay at home and avoid unnecessary travel, but what if you don't have a home?

Tom Lane

Written by Tom Lane
Published on 30.11.2020 18:00 (updated on 06.12.2020)

COVID-19 has taken its toll on all of us, whether it be our health, work or finances.

During the first and second lockdowns in the Czech Republic, the advice has been clear, to stay inside where possible and avoid unnecessary travel. But what if you have no home to go to or limited finances? The homeless population doesn’t always have the luxury of being inside.

Vaclav has been homeless for 14 years and gives tours for Pragulic – or at least did before the pandemic took it’s toll on tourism in the Czech Republic and forced the country to lockdown.

People receive donations at a 'Help Prague’s Homeless' Christmas event last year. (photo: Help Prague’s Homeless)
People receive donations at a 'Help Prague’s Homeless' Christmas event last year. (photo: Help Prague’s Homeless)

“Everyone has been impacted including me but, in my case, not so much. There is definitely a financial loss because I cannot work and do the tours every Sunday as before, but I personally am ok,” he said.

“I have a place to stay so I don't even mind the ban on going outside after 9 p.m. I stay inside and listen to the radio. Everybody knows me here so every Friday I get delicious meals that were not sold from a local bistro."

"I can also visit the Hermes ship where food is given out once a day from Monday to Friday. I get double portions because I always bring them a can of beer, so I am very popular, and they spoil me!”

Often people can turn to support from shelters and charities, doing their best to offer somewhere to stay or some food to eat.

But these locations also face issues in terms of investment to make their locations COVID secure and they only have so much space, as social distancing is a key measure in stopping the spread, so space is a premium.

Vaclav is a homeless tour guide with  Pragulic.  (photo: Pragulic)
Vaclav is a homeless tour guide with Pragulic. (photo: Pragulic)

Dr. Jarmila Lomozová is Deputy Director for Public Relations at Arcidiecézní Charita Praha which houses homeless people at their St. Theresa Shelter in Prague 8.

She says they have had to adapt to the current situation.

“The services are now affected by the coronavirus measures, we distribute face masks to those who don’t have their own and we insist people wear them, we have disinfection available and we even use ozone generators and we have set up an isolation room in the shelter to be used by people who may have tested positive,” she said.

“The miracle so far is that no one has tested positive among our clients. There was one woman who came with fever, we arranged a test and it came back negative, in the meantime she was in the isolation room so we made sure that we prevented any potential spread of the disease if that was the case.”

While the center has so far not seen anyone test positive for coronavirus, Lomozová says they have seen an increase in people looking for help, impacted by restrictions and loss of income in the current climate.

She continued: “This is what we do. We offer our help and the main trend we see is that people are coming in who never had problems before and they tell us ‘we never thought we would fall so far to the bottom and not have a place to stay’ for example, we had an entrepreneur who supplied hotels and restaurants and now his income has dropped to zero. He didn’t have savings or any family to save him, so he ended up in our shelter.”

According to a 2019 census report from the Research Institute of Labor and Social Affairs there were 21,230 homeless adults and 2,600 minors without a home the in the Czech Republic. There are currently no statistics to show what impact the current pandemic has had on these numbers.

There is support currently in place from the government. Some homeless people are allowed to stay in hotels which the government is renting to provide them with shelter. A number of charities and businesses have also stepped in to support people with food or clothing during these difficult times.

Volunteers and clients pose for a group photo at a 'Help Prague’s Homeless' Christmas event last year. (photo: Help Prague’s Homeless)
Volunteers and clients pose for a group photo at a 'Help Prague’s Homeless' Christmas event last year. (photo: Help Prague’s Homeless)

One organization that has been supporting people without homes before the crisis hit is Střecha Social Cooperative, a bistro based in Žižkov. They not only employ homeless and former homeless people but offer a service where people can buy a meal for a homeless person alongside their own meal.

Filip Hausknecht is one of the co-founders, he explains that while people can no longer come into the Bistro for support due to the lockdown, they have adapted to help in any way they could.

“We had a shelter two just two streets from us, run by an NGO that is working with homeless people and there are around 50 people living there,” he said.

“The pandemic came so quickly and they didn’t have funding for food. There were no people in the street so they didn’t have the chance to get food or money from anywhere, plus obviously it’s really hard to get a job as a homeless person in general, especially during the COVID crisis. So, we started supplying the shelter with dinners. We brought 15 warm dinners per day at the beginning and then we raised it to 25 per day. In the first wave it was around 1,200 meals in total.”

The pandemic has left many in fear, with concerns about their health and wellbeing at the top of the list. However, Vaclav says he is not particularly worried.

“I am not scared of anything. There is no reason for me to fear for my life. I am strong, have a good immune system and my blood type is 'O' which makes me very resistant to various diseases,” he adds.

Dr. Lomozová says she does not get a sense of fear from the people in their care either.

“I spoke to my colleague and they said that homeless people are not scared overall, they don’t always check the news all the time like we do, and also they are not the target group. They aren’t seniors who are 70 or older, although the number of seniors who are homeless has increased, generally people we deal with are younger.”

However, there is one big concern that she has about the impact of the pandemic.

“The biggest fear of ours is if our staff would be infected, because they would have to stay home, and we don’t have other people to come in their place. We would have to take in volunteers, but the standard [to do this type of work] is high, and you can’t take anyone without experience working in this service so it would be difficult. If there were many people that tested positive, we wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

While Vaclav and Dr. Lomozová aren't worried, Hausknecht admits he has seen some anxiety amongst the people he has come across.

“Obviously as everyone is stressed about it, it creates a lot of anxiety with people asking themselves if it could get worse. Also, this crisis is hitting everyone hard, people have less money to spend on fundraisers or to donate, so in general the situation is worse,” he said.

With the temperature dropping as we approach winter, the City of Prague is preparing for the impact it could have on people who don't have a home, with the Central Dispatching Center able to provide social services for homeless people 24 hours a day.

Councillor Milena Johnová, who is focused on ​health care and social policy said:

"Field workers for non-profit organizations have strengthened their services since the beginning of the year, to distribute disinfectants, face masks and inform homeless people where they can turn, especially if they need to be isolated due to the virus. Now they will also let people know about additional possibilities day centers or dormitories offer and, if necessary, ensure transport for people to these locations. I thank all who help protect the health of homeless people and thus, the health of all Praguers.”

There will be several low-threshold day centers with extended opening hours, as well as winter dormitories and all-day accommodation.

There is also a facility in operation that is intended for homeless people who may need to go into quarantine or isolation with COVID-19 symptoms but do not need medical care.

Organizations that you can support in order to help the homeless

Other groups have now come into existence with the sole purpose of providing support to those in need during this time. A group called Místní místním or Locals for Locals, launched in October to help people who do not or did not have a home.

They have been working with other NGOs and food establishments to deliver baguettes to those who may not be able to afford food or may have to choose between food and other necessities.

In an email, Ester Pacltová, founder of the organization explained why she decided to start it.

“The reason why we see it crucial to support people without a home during this time is that with the restrictions imposed by the government, nobody was looking at how it will affect people who are homeless. We put out the call to raise awareness about the issues that people without home are dealing with in this new COVID world,” she said.

“They are losing their seasonal jobs, ways of getting food, options where to get some small amounts of money or leftovers from restaurants and friends. This all makes their lives even more difficult. We need information, enough hygiene, early and free COVID testing and quarantine – all of those are actually not possible for people living on the streets.”

With news of several vaccine trials looking successful and having a high success rate, it’s hoped that next year we could see COVID become a thing of the past. For the homeless population of Prague, the impact has been mixed, but people have come together to make sure the support is there.