In summer one can more or less live on the street, but in the winter it can cost you your life. In addition to a knapsack or plastic bag you also have to get yourself a blanket or a sleeping bag, and if you can’t find an old mattress, you need to collect enough cardboard boxes to make your own.
Next you have to find a place where you won’t freeze to death in your sleep, like under a bridge, in a park, in a shed, or perhaps in a shelter. You have to not be afraid to go to the people who think about those who are otherwise forgotten. The December 2013 issue of Romani vod’i magazine featured the following interview with Dominika Najvert, the director of the Association of Homeless Shelters in the Czech Republic:
Q: Is it possible to estimate how many homeless people there are in our country or to compare us to other countries in terms of numbers?
A: In the Czech Republic there are about 30 000 homeless people and another 100 000 are at risk of losing their housing. The reasons people end up on the street are that they are children who are running away from home, or people with debts they can’t pay, or people with non-existent or weak family ties (because of divorce, domestic violence, partners leaving a family with children and other problems), socioeconomic reasons (bad housing policy, high unemployment, the lack of an effective nationwide social housing system), or they are people who are transitioning out of an institution like an orphanage or prison. Most of these are cumulative reasons – several factors play a role simultaneously, it can be hard to choose just one as the main reason. In the European context the situation is different from other countries.
Q: You are the director of the Association of Homeless Shelters in the Czech Republic. Who belongs to your organization and what do you focus on?
A: The Association of Homeless Shelters in the Czech Republic (Sdružení azylových domů v ČR – S.A.D.) was founded in 1993 as an umbrella organization for individuals, institutions, organizations and social service providers involved in the issues of homeless people or those at risk of homelessness. Its priority is to create a professional working environment for its members and to defend their interests. Our members are most often facilities providing services to persons at risk of social exclusion – drop-in centers that are open during the day, halfway houses, hostels, shelters, etc. Today S.A.D. has 90 members throughout the Czech Republic. S.A.D. also conducts research into homelessness, promotes the issue of care for people who have lost the roofs over their heads or who are at risk of losing them, and undertakes various kinds of business and professional activities as well as projects. The association has long collaborated with other organizations, including educational institutions that take an interest in the problems of homeless people, and together we have formed a single platform for negotiating with legislative, municipal and state bodies at all levels of the public administration. We provide advice, consultations, education, information and support to our members. S.A.D. is a member of FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless. In 2011 S.A.D. implemented this country’s first-ever census of homeless people together with the Czech Statistical Bureau as part of the general census. In 2012 we organized a summer trip for mothers with children who live in shelters, called “A Different Kind of Vacation”. Since 2013 we have been implementing the Krokuz project, which is a series of educational seminars intended for girls and women living in shelters – the name is short for Krok ku zdraví (Step toward Health). Its central topic is health literacy. The project was launched in February 2013 and is planned to go until 2015, and women in all of the shelters that are our members should eventually participate in it. In 2015 we are counting on expanding the program to include men living in shelters.
Q: In November you also organized a unique project, “A Night Outside” (Noc venku). Anyone could try to be homeless for one night and homeless people themselves participated.
A: We have been running “A Night Outside” with the Faculty of Social Studies at Ostrava University since 2012. It has also been running for several years in England. It’s hard to figure out when it first began there.The first small “sleeping bag” groups seem to have begun in the 1970s, small groups of students who were not indifferent to the fate of homeless people. Other groups followed in Cambridge, London, Oxford and many other cities. The aim of the event is to familiarize people with the issue of homelessness, to recognize what it’s like to sleep outside, and to also raise money to use to support homeless people. In Britain several actions like “A Night Outside” take place parallel to one another. The one in London in 2012, two weeks before our Ostrava one, included the wife of the grandson of Queen Elizabeth II, Kate Middleton. In 2011 a total of 650 people who slept outside in solidarity with the homeless in Great Britain. Here in the Czech Republic we had 40 brave souls join us that first year in Ostrava. “A Night Outside” is a unique opportunity to spend the night outside without the usual comfort we are accustomed to. It’s also a chance to respond to the question of homelessness and to support local homeless people. They are part of the production team from the beginning, and without their contributions the event would mean nothing. The homeless people who are in the roles of guests and spectators have praised the idea and most of them help out during the events. The entry fee is in the form of donated groceries, which are then distributed by local social services providers to homeless people, who are very glad to have that food aid. The social services use the donated groceries during their recreational activities for children and mothers, as well as for their clients who are in financial straits and have no food - their numbers are constantly rising and we frequently witness the fact that mothers have no food for their children. We invite social services providers to “A Night Outside” as well. They get the opportunity to present their projects and services there, or to join with us for this different kind of collaboration. Some clients or the superintendents of social services also make presentations during the event or help us in other ways, such as moderating the evening. This year “A Night Outside” was joined by eight Czech cities and the Slovak capital Bratislava, so nine of these events took place across the territory of the entire former Czechoslovakia on the same day, 21 November 2013. The event was very successful, dozens of people tried spending the night outside all over the Czech Republic, and more than 1 000 people supported the event and its cultural program here. In Opava several town councilors slept outside, including Vice-Mayor Pavla Brada, who gave her auspices to the event. Several directors of social services and other aid organizations slept on the street as part of it, as did employees of the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic.