Pragulic is a social enterprise located in Prague that aims to change the public’s perception of homelessness by hiring local homeless people to give alternative tours of the city. It consists of a small team of four members alongside six homeless guides and 60 volunteer translators. There are also around four professionals (lawyers, psychologists, accountants) working pro bono. Pragulic was founded in 2012 by three students and won the International Social Impact Award. Only one of the founding members remains, Tereza Jurečková, who now serves as the director.
“I feel the perception of homeless people is changing all the time. Here in Prague, we have a lot of homeless people in the city centre so it is very visible, but still we do not have enough social services and support for NGOs. There is a perception that if you are a homeless person you can find a job you are just lazy and it is your choice and we’re trying to change that,” she said.
As one of their mission statements is to de-stigmatise homelessness I decided to meet with three of their guides to learn more about their stories.
I met Robert at a fundraiser for Pragulic in Café na půl cesty (Halfway Café), a cool spot in Centrální park Pankrác that is working to rehabilitate sufferers of mental illness, such as schizophrenia, by giving them positons as bartenders.
Robert, a cheery, wise-cracking man obsessed with trains, has been giving tours with Pragulic since October 2013. I asked him how he was and he said he was happy because he’s making money. He didn’t ask me how I was because he told me I must be happy with the Czech beer in my hand. We laughed on a bench outside of the bar safe from the noise of the live band playing punk-rock, and then he told me how he became homeless in 2005.
“It was very easy,” he began, “I will tell you all the story.”
In the “time of crisis” in the 1930s, his grandfather spent 5,000 Czech Crowns on button turning machines and began turning buttons. He was quite successful and went on to hire five employees making buttons to sell.
“After the war he should have been thanked for feeding five to six working class families during the crisis, but instead he was said to be an enemy of the state. And my father wasn’t allowed to be a student and go on to university as the son of an enemy of the state. The business was nationalised.”
His father was allowed to study foreign trade in another secondary school and ultimately was sent to Cairo to sell steel and iron. Robert and his brother studied there from 1976 to 1981. He worked in Cairo until 2005 until he came back in Prague.
“When I came back my father told me my grandfather died and he had promised me he will let me stay in his house but my father and uncle had sold it. I did not even know there was such a law that so easily lets people lose their permanent residence. That’s my story.”
He worked in a few odd jobs including being an extra for Czech television and movies, working in a bakery, and in masonry until 2013 when he saw that Pragulic were looking for new tour guides in the Metro newspaper. It took seven months for him to complete his training. In his tours he shows nature, history, the Chinese pagoda, romantic ruins, and the train network of the city.
“Trains are my life because there I meet people,” he said.
I met Pepa, my homeless guide, in Malá Strana (Little Quarter) at 7pm. We, along with the tour’s English translator, had to wait for 20 minutes as the other people booked in were running late. During this time Pepa chatted with the friendly translator who has just begun volunteering for Pragulic. It’s all Czech to me, so to speak, but the new volunteer and seasoned tour guide seemed to be chatting as if they weren’t strangers. Pragulic have built a team of friendly, sociable people. Once the tour begins I’m treated with an insight into his life and the history of the Little Quarter.
Pepa guides our group through this fascinating area around and through Prague’s famous castle. He points out important historical landmarks, such as where you can see cannonballs lodged in the facades of churches, the old defensive walls of the castle, the deer moat, where the Czech crown jewels are normally held, the presidential residence, and St. Vitus Cathedral. Pepa grew up in this area and his tour mixes deep nostalgia with a wide knowledge of its history, pointing out different styles of architecture as we walked along the bumpy cobbled streets of the Little Quarter.
He’s a knowledgeable man, answering the group’s questions through translation. He takes us to a playground hidden near the castle. There’s a strange toy embedded in the ground between the slides and swings. It’s a model of a truck’s gear stick. He explains that he was recently at a museum dedicated to the history of Czech truck manufacture Tatra, and explained how significant they were to the country: even appearing in playgrounds.
Pepa gave us insights into the lives of homeless people. He showed us a park where many homeless people sleep at night with little interference, even feeling safer because the police commonly patrol that area “but stay in their cars because they are lazy.”
Pragulic previously had their own building, but due to rising rents in the capital they’ve been forced to move out. These rent increases serve as a reflection for the difficulties homeless people face. The social enterprise is now currently located in Pracovna, a shared workspace and office building. They don’t have space to store clothes and other items for their homeless guides in this new office. As a result, Tereza says they are still looking for a new place: “We need our own place. Rents are terrible in Prague. It is not possible to pay normal commercial rents.”
It is in the Pracovna café I met Petr, a homeless guide. Petr, a seller of the street magazine Nový Prostor, was wrapping twine around stacks off books. He took off his cowboy-style hat for the interview and told me about how he became homeless eight years ago when he started sleeping rough for a period of three years. He said his story is “how a regular person, a young guy from a normal family has a need for money and started gambling and became homeless.”
His dream was to be a hunter but his grandmother told him he would not be successful so he studied mechanical work and ended up working for a gas company. He eventually became a city policeman. This is where he started to gamble, even using police funds.
“This is where it all started,” he said.
He was fired and then followed his divorce. He continued to gamble and was not able to continue, asking his friends and family for money. He left everything in his home city of Teplice and moved to Prague. I asked if this was because it was “better” to be homeless in Prague.
“For myself, I was ashamed for my family to see me like this so I moved to Prague and it was better for me but generally for people who are not able to succeed in Prague – finding a job, finding accommodation – it is better to stay in smaller cities where they can find support.”
He told me after the revolution people did not know how to react to homelessness as it was new, but after the floods in which people lost their homes there was solidarity for a while as people changed their perception.
“We’re seeing a change. People now also understand it can happen to them and they are trying to change the legislation because they understand if it happens to them no one will be there to help them from the legal perspective.”
He told me about his daily routine: “When things were good, I would wake up at 7am, and either walk the dog or walk my daughter to school. Then I would have breakfast and go sell the magazine. I’d have lunch and go to the magazine office. And then I would go to the theatre where I started as an actor and a few years ago started my own theatre group. But it is difficult to manage the finances for this.”
He said the marker for when things got bad was his divorce. He feels manic, that he is working 120% and that he might collapse. Petr is taking a break from being a tour guide but upon his return “you will get to know the joys and sorrows of life on the street, you will find out what’s it like to sell the “Nový Prostor” magazine and you will get a look into the homeless colony under the Hlávkův Bridge.”
Tereza says Pragulic also have a few projects in mind for the future that they will start working on in Autumn. One project is in the tourism sector while the other involves building a community of people who have been on the tours or are somehow involved and guide them to be able to help their own local homeless communities.