A break in the cycle?

Monday 29 Aug 2011

Hope for Prague's homeless community as specialised health centre announced

Homelessness is a burgeoning global issue. Independent organisation Red de Apoyo a la Itnegración Sociolaboral (RAIS) estimates that the Europe’s homeless population has risen to an incredible 3 million people, and Slumdogs - a charity born from touching 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire - quotes a 2005 report by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights which states that ‘an estimated 100 million people - one quarter of the world’s population - live without shelter or in unhealthy and unacceptable conditions’.

For many long-term homeless people, poor hygiene, malnutrition, and exposure to disease and unsanitary conditions often lead to a dependency on limited healthcare facilities and regular visits to A&E. A report published in the Guardian newspaper this past February featured a telling interview with a long-term homeless man, Gary Spall, who confessed: “We do make it difficult to help us…Doctors and nurses don’t know how to deal with us, so they fix us medically then chuck us back out on the streets. It’s understandable, but it means it’s only a matter of time before we end up back at A&E, at death’s door.

“I must have cost the health service a fortune over the years. It’s embarrassing how much I must have cost them.” Regardless of the financial ramifications, what is paramount from Spall’s admissions is that many patients without a permanent address are discharged from healthcare institutions still in need of medical assistance and yet are back on the street and immediately exposed to an inhospitable environment. Without the necessary funds for additional prescriptions, patients who are discharged from hospital with no fixed residence quickly find themselves drifting back into ill health.

A new centre in the Czech Republic looks to address the needs of this vulnerable group. Due to open this coming winter, a healthcare facility for the specific use of those released from hospital post-surgery without a fixed address is located in the Prague 8 District. First reported in local daily newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes (MfD), the new hospital for the homeless looks to provide a half-way house for those without shelter in an effort to reduce the vicious cycle of street-hospital-street currently overwhelming the city’s homeless population. Patients will be advised to spend up to fourteen days at the centre, receiving crucial post-surgery care from the onsite doctors. The City Council has now approved plans to radically transform an existing pension building into the specialised hospital facility, designed to aid those recovering from serious surgery or ailments such as leg ulcers which are common in many homeless circles.

The Civic Democratic Party-led Prague City Council has also approved plans for a ‘Homeless Camp’ on the outskirts of the city (far from the prying eyes of the almost half-million visitors that flock to the Czech capital each year) in a move that has been slammed by many critics but supported by City Councillor Jiri Janecek who argues that the new community will be an ‘oasis’ to ‘protect the people of Prague’. He told news source The Global Post that: “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.”

Plans for the camp - which are part of Prague’s Action Plan on the Issues of Homeless People 2010-13 - include access to healthcare assistance, regular rations of soup, and land available for people to pitch tents and build fires, however detailed concepts are yet to be released. Controversy has risen over concerns that this dedicated space will further alienate this vulnerable group from the rest of society, especially as the Council have announced plans to form an official registry of all inhabitants in the camp. The Prague Post spoke to a number of homeless people in the city and received repeatedly negative responses, including one from a woman named Helena who stated: “I think the idea behind it is to get us all there and keep us there. Why would they have come up with the registry for homeless people otherwise?”

Architects across the world are always quick to respond to the needs of those forced to live without shelter following national disasters, such as the nuclear tragedy that befell Japan this past March or February’s devastating earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand; however closer to home the needs of those without a roof over their heads are often overlooked as commissions focus on the tallest tower or most energy efficient office block.

A 2004 report by Feantsa - the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless - blames the Czech Republic’s homelessness issues on ‘deep political, economic and social change’ in the early 1990s, as socialist countries in central and eastern Europe (including the Czech Republic) ‘moved from authoritarian regimes with state controlled economies and an all-embracing social safety net…to democratic regimes with market-oriented economics and a considerable gap in terms of social welfare provision’.

These are complex social issues that cannot be solved by a single sweeping gesture, however this camp, coupled with the small scale healthcare facility (which has 28 beds to the camp’s capacity for 300) do go some way to addressing the needs of Prague’s estimated 3,000-5,000 homeless residents [Salvation Army]; yet with the global economy in its current unstable condition, homelessness may soon begin to rise again and schemes such as these may begin to fall at the wayside as the scarcity of public funding becomes truly apparent and pressure increases on charitable organisations. And so the vicious cycle continues.

Key Facts:

Healthcare Civic Buildings
Czech Republic

Want to submit your project to World Architecture News?

Contact The Team