Monday, 20 January 2020

In Search of Prague: The Face of Homelessness

By Ileana Lobkowicz | Prague Daily Monitor |
11 October 2019

The Face of Homelessness in Prague

“What do you think brings a homeless person to the streets?” 

This was the first question that Karim, a homeless tour guide, asked our intimate group of six strangers. 

“Drugs and addiction,” replied one person. 

“Alcohol,” said another.  

We see them everywhere — on our way to work, begging on the sidewalk or sleeping on a bench. But many haven’t come across them leading tours around Prague. Karim is one of nine homeless people employed by Pragulic, the social enterprise breaking down the stigmas around homelessness. 

Our meeting point for the tour was at the fountain of Czech Musicians, not far from Prague’s main train station. Karim sat on its edge, posed like a sculpture, as if he was one of the four dancing bronze statues surrounding the steady stream of spouting water. 

I arrived, as ready as anyone can be to experience “Prague’s under-world.” If the title of the tour wasn’t enough of a mystery, Karim’s elusive aura certainly was. You could barely see the whites of his eyes, hidden behind thick black liner and long feather eyelashes. At the outset of our journey, the feeling of discomfort was palpable. No one knew what to expect. Even the vague travel itinerary on Pragulic’s website cautioned tourists. 

“You never know when and where the tour will finish.” 

But any logistical concerns quickly dissipated. As an active theater performer for Rozkoš Bez Rizika, a non-profit organization providing risk-preventive resources to help sex workers, Karim knows how to put on a show for his audience. We were immediately enthralled, but still remained vigilant. He encouraged interactive role-play, beckoning us with his purple-painted fingernails and personalized nicknames — his favorite being miláčku (“my darling”). 

“The goal of my tour,” announced Karim, “is to change your perspective after tonight, to think like a homeless person.” 

Perhaps the most immediate question one would ask is where do you sleep? 

Karim identified obvious urban infrastructure in plain sight: benches, parks, and tree-covered areas. 

“Oh, and water fountains are our toilets,” he added. Every time he had something to say, he always stopped to turn around and face us. 

We came across a plastic dumpster sitting on a curb. With an enthusiasm for show and tell, Karim opened it to reveal its dual purpose: not only as the city’s trash disposal, but also as beds for the homeless. Karim warned one has to be careful not to be thrown away when the early-morning garbage trucks make their rounds. The dumpsters are also strategically used to protect private property. Since they are owned by the state, many homeless people use them as temporary storage for personal belongings, under the assumption that people wouldn’t risk stealing from the state. 

Metros are another popular place to turn into a home. 

“Who else can say they have a living room this big with five entrances?” asked Karim, proudly standing in the Charles Square metro station.  

He paused to light a cigarette, which allowed time to observe his work attire. The son of an artist, Karim clearly inherited a creative sense of style. Two ball caps sat on top of his head, balancing a pair of bedazzled sunglasses. He wore a purple sequin shirt under his black hoodie, which provided little protection as we walked back out to face the rain. 

The unseasonably cold weather conditions prompted Karim’s next survival question: 

“How do you stay warm in the winter?” 

Around the corner, Karim hovered his hands over hot air shooting from vents below a storefront. But such spots are rare to find, leaving very few alternatives. 

“Sometimes, jail is better in the winter,” admits Karim, who’s been arrested three times. 

Our tour took a turn — from practical ways to survive the streets to facing the inevitable risks that come with it. Prague’s abundant drug scene remains a nationwide problem, especially among the estimated 100,000 people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, according to a 2018 survey under the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs

Karim spoke from his own experience as a former methamphetamine addict (locally called “pervitin”), a drug which is easy to come by given its long history of illegal use and production in the country. Vietnamese criminal groups manage most of the Czech Republic’s illegal drug market, according to a report from the National Drug Headquarters. But much of this remains unknown to the average passerby, who likely won’t notice an abandoned boot as a clue to indicate drug-meeting sites or mini convenience markets as suspected fronts for selling drugs, as Karim astutely pointed out. 

Halfway through our tour, we stopped for a drink. The waiters greeted Karim like a celebrity, whose loyalty as a customer was clear when they immediately brought his regular order: a pint of dark beer, with which he cheered to each of us. My initial intimidated impression of Karim was slowly disappearing and one could feel the group’s heightened sense of ease. Everyone’s attention was fixed on the volcano-sized mountain of jewelry clumped around Karim’s neck in a sparkling knot. He explained that he wore precisely 63 pieces of jewelry on his body. He wiggled his bangled, tattooed wrists and ring-covered fingers. I asked him if there was any significance to this exact number, to which he shrugged indifferently. He had us all take turns to hold his neckwear in our hands. 

We learned more about Karim in those 45 minutes, huddled around a small table, than we did on the entire tour. A native of Slovakia, he left his family and ended up on the streets of Prague at the age of 16. He was sold as a sex slave by pimps and became a male prostitute for over a decade — a profession he deemed more lucrative than female prostitution, as he recollected the profitable earnings of his heyday. Whatever monetary value he acquired was quickly diminished after he contracted AIDS from a client in 1997, giving up prostitution for good. 

Karim walked us through Wenceslas Square — Prague’s unofficial “red-light district,” home to a slew of erotic clubs, massage parlors, and bright signs for “Darling Cabaret”. But Karim had his own experience to tell. He led us to a quiet square outside a dimly lit church. He leaned with one foot up against the adjacent building — a pose he likely struck when he dressed up as a woman for ten years to meet his clients at this very site. He directed our attention across the street to a purple glow emanating from the windows of Café Bar +Flirt, coining it one of the first gay bars in Prague. 

“Most homeless people want to be homeless,” said Karim. “They have more freedom. They don’t want to be run by the state.”

There was something freeing about exploring the streets with Karim. Of the approximately 800 tours per year that Pragulic operates, his are among the most popular. 

“He was one of the first people we approached,” says Tereza Jurečková, who co-founded Pragulic in 2012. 

All guides are paid a fixed fee, subject to the length and frequency of their tours and tips. They also receive other benefits, such as shelter or administrative work, with the goal of improving their living situations. 

“We want Pragulic to be a platform for people,” Jurečková says, “to provide the tools, advice, and support to use this experience to make an impact.” 

We were approaching the indeterminate end of our six-hour tour, meandering through the destitute streets of Prague at 1:30 A.M. before settling for a last round of beer. There were three of us left. I sat down next to Karim, who gently took my cold hands in the warmth of his own.

In that moment, I was acutely aware of my growing openness and waning fear. His physical touch reminded me that compassion is what connects us as human beings, no matter our life story.

My experience was less about seeing Prague through the eyes of a homeless person and more about humanizing the de-humanized, about changing attitudes and building empathy.

This is Karim’s story. He’s not only the face of homelessness, but he is the heart as well.  

*Please note that the information provided in this article is based upon Karim’s personal experience and recollections. Karim’s tour was in Czech, but Pragulic offers translators and an English-speaking guide. To book a tour or learn more about their efforts, visit www.pragulic.cz 

Ileana Lobkowicz grew up in Prague. She was managing editor of The Gavel, Boston College's online student publication, volunteered at a magazine written by Boston's homeless community, and has published marketing content for two travel service companies and a non-profit organization. She is on a quest to share the hidden stories of Prague.