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Commentary: Czech residential hotels now worse than refugee camps used to be

Prague/Ostrava, 12.2.2013 16:16, (ROMEA)
One of the residential hotels in Ostrava on Cihelná street (2013). (Photo:  František Kostlán)
One of the residential hotels in Ostrava on Cihelná street (2013). (Photo: František Kostlán)

It's Wednesday, 6 February 2013 and we're in Prague at a large roundtable - police officers, psychotherapists, social workers, child welfare department staffers, employees of civic associations in the helping professions. All together we are doing our best to resolve the complex medical, relational and social problem of a single family that resulted in domestic violence recently.

Everyone at the meeting, which was convened by the Prague Intervention Center (Intervenční centrum Praha) is doing his or her best to find the most correct and sensitive resolution for all members of the family concerned. This requires the expenditure of a great deal of effort, finances, good will and human resources.

Suddenly I remember the residential hotel on Cihelná street I visited with my husband František and my colleague Martina three days prior. Romani people are living there who were forced to move away from Přednádraží street and from other parts of Ostrava into completely degrading, undignified conditions.

When we walked into the residential hotel, I immediately recalled the refugee camps I visited for many long years as a social worker for the Counseling Center for Refugees (Poradna pro uprchlíky). There, as in the residential hotels of Ostrava, refugee families lived in a single room, with common toilets and a single small kitchen for all of the rooms on each floor.

The refugee camps did their best to remove electrical outlets from the rooms, as other residential hotels in Ostrava have done. The refugees, however, knew their long waits would end one day and they would have to go back to their home countries (only a minimum of applicants received asylum).

The people living in the residential hotels in Ostrava have almost no hope of seeing a change in their housing or their lives. They pay the owners of these places enormous rents per room (CZK 3 500 per month per adult and CZK 2 000 per child). Some of that is covered by the state through the housing benefit and some is paid by the tenants from either their wages or their other welfare. They are left with the bare minimum necessary to live on.

Dysentery is spreading in the residential hotels. They are really incubators for problems. Children ranging from infants to teenagers are growing up in them in poverty. They do not see their parents working (there is almost no work to be had, especially for Romani people) and so they never learn how to work themselves. Poverty, dissatisfaction, and a life without a home turns into family arguments, aggression, and eventually into shoplifting, prostitution, drug use and gambling.

The residential hotel owners are making money on their Romani tenants. When Romani people seek better housing, they often run into even more tightfisted entrepreneurs who demand even higher deposits and rents.

The town is pushing Romani residents out of a quarter where bigger business plans are afoot. This concentration of social ills is now incubating, and will soon hatch, unimaginable problems which no roundtable will be enough to resolve.

I bring my attention back to the Prague roundtable, but I keep remembering Ostrava. Suddenly I was unspeakably grateful to Kumar Vishwanathan and his people at the Life Together association (Vzájemné soužití) for the hope they give us through their persistence. They are doing their best, together with Romani residents of Přednádraží street who have lived there for more than 20 years, to repair a building there and maintain it as housing. That effort is a symbol of a good approach toward people, one that should be an example to others.

Unlike the residential hotel, that building felt like a home, even if the electricity had been disconnected. It was during our visit there that Kumar learned the Czech Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs would not be funding one of his important social work projects in the field featuring a "mixed" (non-Romani and Romani) team. The project helps victims of loan-sharking, works to eliminate the various infestations at the residential hotels (bedbugs, dysentery, hepatitis), maintains good cooperation with the police, works with children, etc.

I can't believe it. The state will not be supporting efforts to resolve these problems and the incubation of many other growing problems doesn't bother them at all. I call Kumar to support him in his efforts. It is unbelievable how many years he has been dealing with unhelpfulness on the part of local and state officials.

Fortunately, he also has good people around him. I'll be sending at least a little money to the SOS Přednádraží initiative (http://www.sosprednadrazi.cz/chci-pomoci). These are young people from all over the country who view these problems just like I do and are involved in resolving it.

There are many such activities here. I admire them very much, as they are standing up for the vulnerable, those brought into a situation of powerlessness by the traffickers in poverty. I am realizing more and more that those of us down here on the ground must help one another as much as we possibly can.

Věra Roubalová Kostlánová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Bída, Děti, Dotace, Drogy, Chudoba, Komunální, Kriminalita, Lichva, Menšiny, Neziskový sektor, Ostrava, Praha, Projekty, Přednádraží, Sociální, Sociální dávky, Sociální vyloučení, Soužití, Ubytování, Vláda, Vystěhování, Aktivismus, MPSV, návštěva, Občanské iniciativy, Romové, sociální bydlení, sociální služby, sociální vyloučení, ubytovny, úplavice, Commentary, Czech republic, Ghetto, Housing, integration, MPSV, opinions, podnikání, Roma



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