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Is the planned camp on the Czech city's outskirts a ploy for more tourism?
PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Zuzana Malinova, 44, would rather not live in a garage that she rents for $50 a month.
Martin Klima, 20, doesn’t want to share a tent with his friend forever.
But neither wants to move to a new homeless camp the city of Prague is building 12 miles from the city center.
"The main reason is that they want to clear the town of these people for the tourists," said Klima, as he ate soup at a Salvation Army shelter recently.
Malinova, also dining at the soup kitchen, declared the planned camp a "ghetto," adding that the idea is reminiscent of the days when the Czech Republic was under communist control.
"It is because of tourists, they are discriminating against us," she said. She admitted that some people in the city center beg, but said she and many others are only homeless because they can't afford housing on their small salaries.
City Councilor Jiri Janecek, who is the main force behind the plan, rejected this interpretation, saying that the camp will be an “oasis” that will "protect the people of Prague." It will have space for 300 people and "it should only provide very basic services because it is aimed at helping the most severe cases of homelessness, people who do not really want to integrate into society," he said. The camp will offer medical assistance, food served twice a day, and basic shelter in the form of either mobile units or tents.
Participation would be voluntary, Janecek said, but added that if homeless people are denied shelter by an NGO for being intoxicated, or found drunk in the streets or on public transportation, they would be arrested and given the option of being sent either to a detoxification center or the homeless camp.
Prague, a city of 1.2 million people, has between 3,000 and 5,000 homeless, according to Mike Stannett, director of the local Salvation Army. Organizations in Prague, through emergency night shelters, hostels for the homeless, and social housing, provide for about 10 percent of this need.
The city has the unique situation of serving as a transit point between eastern and western Europe, with many of the homeless passing through en route to relatively wealthy western European countries.
But as both Prague’s economy and reputation as a desirable locale have improved, the city has become more attractive to those seeking to relocate — both with means and without.
At the same time, Prague has become a tourism hub and prices in the city center have increased rapidly. Now the cost of living is comparable to western European cities. There were 4 million foreign visitors to Prague in 2008, according to the Czech Statistical Office.
The homeless are an eyesore for tourists visiting the city, Janecek said. "There are homeless people in tourist locations, and those locations of course suffer," he said. "I try to put them into a place where they don't disturb anyone; where no one minds their presence."
City Hall, which approved the plan in mid-August, has tentatively chosen to put the camp behind a rubbish dump, which it interprets as a positive — the dump, officials say, could potentially provide employment for the people staying at the camp.
Stannett said he, as well as other NGO officials, find the plan inhumane.
“We have to say, from the point of view of the [Salvation Army], but it’s also from the point of view of several other NGOs … that the action plan is total nonsense," Stannett said. "It's not the humane way of dealing with people. It is a 19th-century way of dealing with people, saying right OK, we'll round them all up, and we'll push them off out of the way of the public view.”
Janecek said that when the homeless are taken to the camp they will be given an ID card. If any person is found to be living in the Czech Republic illegally, or has an outstanding arrest warrant, they will be handed over to police and, if necessary, expelled from the country.
Malinova, who makes a meager income working as a security guard, will stay in the garage as long as she can. She worries that if she is back on the streets once the homeless camp is built she will be coerced into moving there.
"All of us are people, not things," she said, shaking her head.