One of the most visible changes in Eastern Europe following the collapse of communism has been the surging number of beggars and homeless people. Always present to some degree under the former regime, but kept out of sight by the police, the homeless are now as prevalent here as in Western Europe -- but few mechanisms exist to care for them. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten investigates a new project in Prague that aims to reintegrate the homeless into mainstream society.
Prague, 27 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The homeless: they are the underside of the Eastern European success story. In cities like Prague, where new shops and cafes open almost daily, competing for the attention of tourists and the newly-monied locals, the homeless are a reminder that an entire class of people is failing in the transition to a market economy.
And that group is growing. Precise statistics are not kept, but staffers at shelters around the city put the number of homeless in Prague -- a city of 1.2 million -- at several thousand. Most are middle-aged men, poorly educated and thus of little interest to private employers. Some lost their homes after the death of a family member, others were evicted after sliding into drink or failing to pay rent. Whatever their personal tragedies, most homeless subsist on a few coins a day -- the donations of a few passers-by.
A new project that draws its inspiration from programs in the West aims to change things and give employment to those homeless who want it, while helping them to re-enter society.
The idea is simple and has already been put to work in scores of cities across the United States and Western Europe. It is what is known as a "street paper." Since February, local journalists in cooperation with a non-governmental organization have published a 32-page magazine that homeless people can sell on the street -- earning both the NGO and the homeless a small profit.
The magazine -- called "Patron" -- comes out twice a month and is sold in Prague and three other Czech cities. In the two months it has been operating, "Patron" has already changed the lives of at least 250 homeless people, providing them with a job and a steady, if small, income.
Robert Sztarovics, coordinator of the project, says the idea for "Patron" came to him in 1998, during a visit to Britain. There, a street paper called "The Big Issue" has been operating in several cities for a few years and claims a total readership of over 1 million people. Sztarovics told the paper's editors that he was interested in adapting the model to the Czech Republic. They put him in touch with the Budapest-based No Borders foundation, started by the British government in 1995 specifically to help establish street papers in Eastern Europe.
The No Borders foundation helped Sztarovics and his colleagues set up their own Czech NGO, and schooled them in how to run a magazine. A year later and with initial start-up capital of 600,000 crowns ($16,000) donated by Britain, the Soros Foundation and the European Union, "Patron" hit the streets, with a print run of 20,000 copies.
Ondrej Cihak is "Patron's" street manager. He is in charge of recruiting magazine sellers, supplying them with new issues, and collecting the profits. In Prague, 80 to 90 homeless sellers make a living from this work. Cihak says the conditions for applying are simple:
"A person who wants to sell has to be in need, either without a roof over his head or without work or without enough finances. Each person signs a declaration pledging that they are in such a situation and that they are older than 16 and that they agree to respect our rules, which are printed in the magazine. On that basis of this registration, we give them a numbered card which they must display when selling the papers and we assign them a selling place."
Each issue sells for 20 crowns ($0.53 dollars). When starting out, a homeless applicant receives five issues for free. When he or she has managed to sell those and collect 100 crowns, Cihak doles out more magazines. Thereafter, the homeless seller keeps half of the profits. The other half goes back to the publisher. After only two months in business, Patron is breaking even on its print run of 20,000 copies. Plans to expand the magazine and add color and better type are already in the works.
Patron employs only one full-time editor, but most articles in the magazine are written by professional journalists. Sztarovics says the magazine is "non-political," with articles focusing on cultural and social issues such as music, the arts scene, the environment, housing, drugs, religion, and human rights.
The palette is broad and Sztarovics says many Czech journalists welcome the chance to write about topics other than the standard fare of parliamentary scandals. All journalists are paid for their work. Sztarovics says the philosophy behind "Patron" is that it should operate as a business rather than a charity -- so that both writers and sellers are motivated to work hard and see the magazine as a professionally worthwhile experience.
As for worries that some people might abuse the system, Sztarovics says the magazine's business philosophy helps sort this out.
"This whole project is built on market principles, de facto. This market principle is self-controlling and works in such a way that if a seller doesn't look right -- people won't buy from him and will seek out another whom they believe is truly in need. So if someone gets in -- a student let's say -- who just wants to make a little extra beer money, people won't buy from him."
That view is confirmed by Josef Horak. Aged 34 and on the street since last December when the construction firm he worked for went bankrupt without paying him for months of labor, Horak became one of "Patron"'s first sellers. On a good day, Horak says he can sell up to 50 copies, earning him enough to pay for a bed at a city shelter and three meals a day while he looks for a steadier job.
Horak says fakers and drunks don't last long in the newspaper-selling business. He ascribes his success to the rapport he has been able to build with local customers, who have become regulars and impatiently wait for each new issue. Indeed, Horak jokes, looking professional and taking his job seriously has won him many clients -- although sometimes they can be initially skeptical.
"If they smell beer coming from you, they immediately think you want the money for booze and no one will give you anything. Some people don't know I'm homeless. They ask me 'You're selling a homeless paper?' and I tell them 'That's because I am homeless.' One day I'll be wearing shorts, the next day a pair of jeans, a shirt and sweatshirt. I wash all my own stuff at the shelter -- so I'm washed and my clothes are laundered -- everything."
Horak has come to pick up more copies of "Patron" from a distribution point in the center of Prague. He is excited about tomorrow -- that's when the new issue comes out sales are always best. Horak already has plans for improving the magazine. He would like to see pages added in English and German, so he could sell more issues to tourists -- some of whom already buy Patron out of solidarity. "It sure beats begging," he smiles as he walks off to start another work day.