Karim tells his audience that he is a lucky man. After finding himself on the street at the age of 39, he spent about seven years working as a male prostitute and being a drug addict. But then he was able to get a job as a tour guide with Pragulic, an agency that offers tours of the city through the eyes of homeless people. It enabled him to walk away from his frightful lifestyle, which less than 10 percent of homeless people are able to do.
The streets vaccinated Karim against gentleness. His speech is informative and doesn’t reveal his emotions. He talks about his HIV positive diagnosis and prostitution in a straightforward manner. His openness makes him one of Pragulic’s most popular guides.
Karim differs from people with a dark past in another way – instead of moaning and complaining about his life, he is simply a narrator of his story. With pitch-black eyeliner around his eyes, numerous rings and necklaces and painted black nails, he stands out from the crowd.
Just like any other tour guide in Prague, Karim offers a walk around the city. Most of his colleagues show the Prague that tourists dream of: narrow streets with colorful Baroque buildings, Charles Bridge with swans near the riverside, and authentic bars with tasty Czech beer. Karim’s Prague has nothing do with any of that; he offers a look at the city through the lens of its hidden, destitute inhabitants.
The tour usually starts in front of Hlavní nádraží, which Karim describes as a center of male prostitution. As Prague is a world destination for gay pornography shootings and male prostitution, he says there are many more men than women working in the sex business. He walks the group around the Wenceslas Square, showing the spots where female prostitutes can be found at night. Walking past a typical Soviet luxury hotel, Karim talks about prostitution in communist Czechoslovakia, where underage prostitutes were in high demand among wealthy politicians. Fortunately, this kind of “business” doesn’t exist anymore.
Pragulic estimates the number of homeless people in the city at around 7,000. Only a few organizations, such as NADĚJE and the St. Theresa Shelter, offer any help. They provide food, a place to stay and help to avoid diseases.
But most homeless people prefer to live on the streets, and Karim offers insight into their lifestyle. He points out the places where they sleep – park benches, Metro stations, under bridges. They keep all their belongings in cardboard boxes (which can also serve as sleeping spaces), shopping carts or big plastic bags, usually from Ikea.
There are two main ways street people earn money for their needs, which are mainly alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. The legal way includes street cleaning and performing, typically as a “living statue” or busker. The illegal way includes pick-pocketing and begging. According to Karim, beggars share half of their earnings with the Prague mafia, which protects them from other homeless. Beggars also pay “informers” who warn them when police are approaching. Organized prostitution is also a common way to earn money. Many prostitutes cooperate with clubs and brothels, which require regular medical exams and pay them regularly.
The money earned usually disappears fast, because the homeless constantly need a “treatment” for the situation they’re in. Hard alcohol and “krokodil,” a Czech substitute for crystal meth, are preferred by homeless the most.
Passing the Muzeum Metro station, Karim warns that the biggest amount of robbers usually choose this spot for working. Walking down Wenceslas Square, he points out the bottom part of it as the place where you are most likely to find honest policemen. Those who work in the upper part, he says, are paid less because of their lower level of education, and are easily corrupted by the mafia and the homeless.
Walking near one of the Mustek Metro entrances, he tells little stories about life on the streets. He shows a small square which is a meeting point for homeless who need to search for or use drugs. People on the street, he says, have a sense of community based either on the type of work they do, or the type of drugs or alcohol they are trying to find.
At the final destination, next to the Národní třída metro station, Karim is asked what is the toughest part of being homeless. He remains silent for a while. Then he finally replies, “Loneliness. You are learning how to be on your own all the time.”
You are learning how to be on your own all the time.
After becoming homeless, hundreds of people will never win their past lives back. Luckily, Pragulic (www.pragulic.cz) and other organizations help such people as Karim; engagement in their experiences changes a common perspective on homelessness.
Cover Photo by Nino Tatishvili
By Oleksandra Kovalevska