This post is written by Trish McNeill.
There are roughly 10,000 homeless people in Prague and according to our tour guide, Karim, only 2% of them want to get off the streets. Those statistics do not tell the whole story.
My boyfriend Vit and I arrive at the main train station and joined the tour group. We had just come from dinner. Mexican. We were a few minutes late because the last margarita I ordered took a little bit longer to drink than the other two.
Karim glances over at us. He’s not impressed but he’s not upset with us either. Peering past his fake, long, glittery eyelashes, he begins talking to the group, and I let my eyes drift over him. He has brooches clipped to his hoodie, long necklaces of pearls and jewels wrapped dangling down to his waist. His nails are painted blue and his fingers can barely be seen past all the rings. He has a small bag draped over one shoulder, skater sneakers and jeans. I’m concerned about one thing I see; it’s too cold to not be wearing gloves.
“What are some reasons people end up on the streets?” Karim asks.
He leans back on the wall and takes a deep breath, patiently waiting for replies. The automatic door behind me opens. I’m cold.
Slowly, and with a lack of confidence, the group starts to answer.
Loss of a job?
Karim nods in agreement. He’s heard these answers before and knows the truth behind them, but there’s more to the story than that.
Many people start off on the streets for one reason or another but they stay there because they choose to. It’s not an easy or comfortable life, but it becomes what they know. The streets change you.
“What’s that over there?” Karim asks while pointing at a cafe.
For many years this cafe has sold coffee and baked goods. It’s not all as it seems. Not long ago you could buy another service there as well. Sex sometimes from boys as young as eleven years old. Is it too late for me to leave? Maybe I can go back to the Mexican restaurant and have another margarita. I’d rather not know the rest.
“What’s the worst part about being on the streets?” Karim asks.
Finally. We all know the answer to this question.
Fining somewhere to sleep.
We pause in a park. My toes and fingers are cold. Karim points at the park benches and explains: “If you’re new on the street, you can’t sleep here. No one knows you and therefore, no one trusts you. Follow the rules and the people will take care of you. You’ll have somewhere to sleep. You’ll have a sense of security. Don’t let this fool you into thinking you’ll have friends.”
Karim turns to us and asks another question: “How do people on the streets get money?” The group is answering again with more serious expressions.
We’re stopped in front of an ATM. Karim explains that this one is not safe to use. He tells us to only use the ATMs that are inside banks or have cameras.
“When you live on the streets and start asking for money, you don’t have to get involved with the mafia. The mafia gets involved with you. You don’t sell, beg, or steal on their turf without becoming involved with them,” he explains.
He tells us in detail, what household drugs can be used to sedate a dog. You see, dogs guarantee more money from passersby.
“When it comes to prostitution, there are the local girls and the Czech girls. They hang out in different parts of town or in the VIP areas of popular dance clubs. None of them keep all of the money they make. Remember, you don’t have to find the mafia. The mafia will find you,” Karim explains.
I’ve never worn 8 inch platform stilettos before but Karim has. He says he wore them for many years in the 80’s and made 80,000 CZK a month. He thought he would get HIV from the drugs. He didn’t know a customer would give him AIDS on purpose instead.
“What options do homeless people have?” Karim asks.
Uneasily, I glance around at the others. Everyone’s gaze seems to have drifted down towards the pavement, but my eyes are fixated on something else. A store. One with all the expensive merchandise and the thin glass window. Obviously someone else is having the same idea as me.
“Prison?” Someone asks.
I can’t help thinking about it. I would choose prison and, according to Karim, some others do as well, especially in the winter months.
Someone else asks, “What about shelters?”
Charities and shelters are an option, but you need to be clean, sober, and in by curfew. Karim reminds us that only 2% of the homeless people don’t want to be on the streets.
I glance up at a clock for the 5th time. I wonder how long the tour is going to be. I’m so cold. I’m so tired. I want to go home.
We’re standing outside Cafe Louvre. I’ve been here before on my first trip to Prague. It was with a food tour, and we learned about the big names that used to visit like Kafka, Mozart, and Einstein. This time, Karim is explaining that you used to be able to buy sex here as well. Again, from children. This cafe looks different now.
I’m holding my svarak close, wrapping my fingers around the glass and letting the heat raise up to my face. It’s only been 4 hours since I was laughing at the bartender flipping ice into the blender and asking Vit if we had time for one more drink, but it feels as though we’ve been out all night. I can’t actually imagine being out all night. Karim is asking if we’d like to do the extended tour tonight.
We’re all averting eye contact and there are a few mumbles about doing it another time. Maybe in the summer? Maybe during the day? Maybe. Maybe when we’re warmer and well rested and wearing walking shoes. Maybe when we’re feeling comfortable because this has not been comfortable. I just got warm.
I’m So Fortunate.
Back home, I collapse onto bed and crawl my way to the pillow that I’ve always considered to be a bit too soft. I reach out for Vit’s hand and pull his arm around me. I set my phone down beside my bed with an alarm on. I don’t want to sleep in and miss breakfast at my favorite cafe. I consider the differences not only in attitude, character, and preferences of people but in resilience, adaptability, and needs.
There are approximately 10,000 homeless people in Prague and according to Karim, only 2% of them want to get off the streets. These statistics don’t tell the whole story. The whole story is that the streets change you. The streets change your way of thinking, your perception of wants and needs, and your perception of reality. The 2% who want off the streets are no better or smarter than the other 98%. None deserve your judgement.
If you’re interested, Prague Homeless tours also offers a 1 day, 3 day, and 7 day experience. Karim says that there are some who have done them in succession and want to try 30 days.