Czech Republic: A day in the Předlice ghetto
The following article, presented here by Romea.cz in full translation, was first published by Penize.cz with photographs at http://www.penize.cz/socialni-davky/250849-reportaz-z-okraje-predlice-bida-zita-az-na-dren
It's 8 AM on Pařížská street. A raw morning in a raw town, Ústí nad Labem. I am here to visit the places from which there is reportedly no way back into normal life.
I want to write about the people who are never spoken of - or rather, when they are discussed, it's only about how to get rid of them. I want to know what it means to live on the outskirts, in a colony of gardening shacks, or with the bedbugs between the moldy walls of a residential hotel nicknamed the Pig Farm.
The neighborhood into which you are born decides everything. Its name is spoken with contempt. Your life's goal is to get out of there. If you are born into the Předlice quarter as a Romani person, it's as if the Lord God disqualified you from the start.
There is no high wall built around the neighborhood, no barbed wire, but traveling beyond the border of Předlice (a trip that should be one-way) is the adventure in life desired by most of the locals there. It is also the adventure most of them will never go on. All they have left is their ordinary, daily life in this distended and unusual ghetto.
It seems like the slush all around us can even be felt in the air. The grey streets are empty. We pass by a few ditch-diggers in bright red overalls who are embarrassed when I want to photograph them. "It's just the time of year, in the summer this place is hopping, people sit out in front of their buildings and there's more noise," Anna Seidlová, a field social worker with People in Need (Člověk v tísni), tells me.
It takes just 10 minutes to ride into the center of Ústí from here, but entryway doors and windows suddenly seem to be an unnecessary luxury. When I see the first pair of collapsed buildings, the first graffittied, sooty walls, the first piles of garbage with a lonely teddy bear beside them in the mud, I instinctively reach for my camera. Then I start to understand that this is just Předlice. We continue our trek through the ghetto - here and there a building with a colorful facade juts out of the greyness, a sudden ecstasy of everything that prompts a feeling of normalcy.
"Ordinary people see Předlice these days only when they drive through here on their way to Globus," Radka Kunešová, the coordinator of the People in Need program says later as she recalls her childhood. "My grandparents lived here on Za Válcovna street. My grandpa told me that to live in Předlice once meant living in a good neighborhood. It all looked different here back then."
Romani people in Ústí-Předlice
A large influx of Romani people from Slovakia in particular came to the Ústí Region after WWII. No one has exact numbers of how many. Today the number of Romani people in Ústí nad Labem is estimated at roughly 10 000 (out of a total population of 100 000). Similar numbers are given for the number of socially excluded people there.
The Municipal District of Předlice spreads over roughly 400 hectares and is populated by about 2 000 people. Until the 1980s, Předlice was considered a good quarter. In the 1980s, however, many of the original residents moved into prefabricated apartment buildings in newly-erected housing estates. Romani people then moved into the vacant apartments.
After 1989 the wave of migration continued. Today Předlice is almost exclusively Romani, with inhabitants divided between the old timers and the newcomers. These divisions are not related to the length of one's residency, but to ties to one's relatives. Whoever is related to an old timer family is automatically considered an old timer.
By the end of the 1990s a third category had developed, a group of Romani people nicknamed the Moravians, influential, wealthy Romani families originally from Moravia. According to the locals, they brought loan-sharking and organized prostitution with them. Those families today own most of the apartment stock there, for example, the residential hotel in Na Nivách street.
"Inadaptables shouldn't call"
In the distance I see what looks like a dilapidated warehouse, but naturally I am mistaken. No one is making money running warehouses in Předlice. In addition to drugs and loan-sharking, the main industry here is in housing the poor.
We are walking along the yellow line of a corridor in the Na Nivách residential hotel. One chipped door after another, embedded into a dirty reddish-white wall. Not home, back soon, someone has scrawled on their door with a felt pen.
"For most people this is a long-term gig," I hear Anna Seidlová say. Some people aren't bothered by it - and the rest are out of luck. No one will give them normal housing. I will hear a great deal about the classified ads including the message "Inadaptables shouldn't call", about the telephone calls that end when the apartment-seekers give their surnames. These people can only dream of ever having enough money to pay the required deposits.
On the ground floor and first floor of what was once a printing shop, the groups living in each unit comprise roughly 15 people. "All of these are studios or one-bedrooms a few meters square," another field social worker, Lenka Stiborová, tells me. "I visit a client who lives here with her husband and six children. Other relatives are coming to live with them, so most of them time I see 16 people in the room."
The luckier tenants have their own shower and toilet in their rooms. Everyone else must use the shared facilities in the hallway or go to their neighbors. "Almost everyone here is related to one another somehow," Lenka explains. In the small rooms the parents create privacy with curtains or bits of rag partitioning the place.
An unpleasant scraping noise tweaks my ears. From an open door a woman emerges with a furrowed face and gray hair, long past the age of 60, all stooped over. She greets us loudly. The scraping resounds again and the door shuts.
"Only Romani people live here, unemployed people, the cost is covered by the housing allowance the Labor Office usually sends straight to the account of the residential hotel owner. It's more than CZK 5 000 per room per month, but recently it was costing as much as CZK 7 000," summarizes Anna Seidlová. In most residential hotels here each additional person costs another CZK 1 000 per month.
The Pig Farm
Several years ago, a man named Vladimír Joni enticed roughly 100 tenants into living in a ruin that had not yet been certified as habitable by promising to protect them from creditors and loan sharks. The locals are already used to the mold there, but recently bedbugs have shown up. The owner had the entire residential hotel sprayed and forced people to throw out their old furniture under threat of eviction. They are having a hard time replacing it.
Several children are running up and down the hallway. They should be in nursery school at this time of day, or maybe even in first grade. They weave their way around clotheshorses sprinkled with wet laundry.
When we step out for some fresh air, I want to take a few more photos. "What are you taking a picture of that for, come here," someone shouts at me.
I see a man getting out of a blue Peugeot. His luxury vehicle looks inappropriate here. "Come over here, I said," he repeats.
"It's the son of the owner, young Joni,“ Anna Seidlová tells me. I hesitate. When I hear his forceful challenge a third time, I take a step forward and grip my camera more firmly, suspecting that it will play a main role now.
"We're from People in Need," a social worker says to the man by the Peugeot. "I'm doing a report here," I add cautiously.
"It won't be anything negative, don't worry," Anna Seidlová says. It's a simple but magical formula that ends up working more than once that day.
The young Joni gets back in his vehicle. I guess now is not the right time for more discussion. We leave.
The elder Joni, the owner of the residential hotel nicknamed the Pig Farm (Prasečák), is in prison right now. Last week they got him and one of his sons for drug distribution. Among the locals there is talk that he has already sold the Pig Farm to someone from Prague. However, for the time being his son is still officiating here.
Everyone knows the name Joni. "That family owns several buildings here, all of them are devastated but fully occupied, they make good money on it all," a local tells me later that afternoon. He is lucky - he doesn't live in a residential hotel, but in an apartment building.
One street over we find ourselves in front of a building which doesn't distinguish itself much from the local color scheme, even though white plastic window frames glow against its chipped, colorless facade. This is where the much-feared Joni family lives. Like almost everyone in Předlice, they are Romani too, but they have managed to make a good business out of their neighbors.
I have just taken my first photograph when one of the plastic windows opens. Another Joni defending his manor. "Go help the people from Předlice, they need it, don't photograph our building," he recommends.
I assure him he won't be in the photo. The plastic window bangs shut.
Residential hotels: A blossoming business in benefits
How and why can it be worth someone's while to run a residential hotel like the one on Na Nivách street? It pays off when welfare is accessed. The system of housing allowances is established such that if a family's housing expenses exceed one-third of their income, the state will make up the difference. The amount of the housing supplement is set up so that after the payment of "justified costs for housing" (i.e., rent, services, and utilities) a family or individual will still have enough left over to live on.
Both kinds of welfare have legally established price ceilings according to the size of the town where one lives and the number of people in a household, but given the rising prices of rents and utilities, those ceilings reach surprising heights. An impoverished tenant can suddenly become a lucrative one for a landlord, one who does not protest the amount of rent - after all, it's not coming out of his pocket. The "secondary recipient" takes almost all of it, even for the worst residential hotels and devastated apartments without bathrooms.
The result of this system has been a mass migration of Romani people in particular searching for accommodation and their subsequent concentration into localities where they have no chance of changing their lives. Daniel Hůle of People in Need says the second of these benefits - the housing supplement - is essentially the more problematic one.
"The housing allowance is a state social welfare benefit that can be claimed and is transparent. You can easily calculate whether you qualify for it and in what amount. The housing supplement is a type of aid in material distress, and its amount depends on the judgment of a specific staffer. So in practice, in some towns, they usually pay out the housing supplement in the amount of many thousands of crowns in order to cover the costs of residential hotels, and that motivates their owners to set high prices," he explains.
Janka and the little gardens
We pass by a half-collapsed hardware store and are now drawing close to the gardening colony, which is carefully parceled into human micro-worlds. "Each of these little garden plots is occupied," Anna Seidlová says. Each one has its own story.
I hear one of those stories and I know I'll never forget it. I'll call her Janka, as I promised not to use her real name. She won't let just anyone into her little cabin, so we agree to meet at the local People in Need office, where her younger daughter has been attending preschool for a couple of months. She's five and it's the first nursery school she has ever attended. Janka visits the mothers' club there.
She sits across from me, a diminutive woman in worn-out sweatpants. When I recall her later, I picture her with translucent skin - not to relieve her of the burden of her skin color, the Berlin Wall that people in Předlice carry with them everywhere, but because she has the vulnerability of a child. She has lived her lived without any protection, down to the marrow.
"It was summer, last year, when we had no money," she starts shyly when I ask how she first found People in Need. A field social worker gave her a leaflet on the street. "I called immediately and I'm glad I did - almost too glad," Janka laughs. I will hear that declaration "too much" several times, covered by a self-conscious chuckle.
She has been living in a little cabin on a garden plot with two small children and her boyfriend for a couple of years now. Her boyfriend, the actual father of her children, is from Slovakia, but another man from Macedonia is listed as the father of her children on their birth certificates.
"They won't give my boyfriend welfare because he doesn't have a residency permit. They threw me out of the welfare office because I didn't have one of the papers, so I left," she tells me. For almost one year after that they lived with no income at all.
"He collects scrap-metal, that's our only salvation, our only certainty. He's good at it, sometimes he brings home as much as CZK 30 a day, but the drug addicts spoil it for him here, they take everything," she says.
People in Need social workers have helped Janka get back into the welfare system. She now gets CZK 7 000 per month. "I find it difficult to manage the household, sometimes I don't know how to time the cash flow," she says with embarrassment.
The art of where you are born
Janka was not born in Předlice. She spent her childhood in Severní Terasa, which is considered a solid neighborhood in Ústí. As she talks about it, I recall once more how determinative a role one's neighborhood plays in one's conditioning and self-identification here.
"We lived in a prefab apartment building with my parents and sisters," she says. She cries when she talks about how her father was a pimp who sent her mother to walk the streets. "Every child is naughty," she says, "but he would immediately tie us up and stick us in the closet."
When Janka was 13, her mother fell ill. Within a couple of years she had passed away. "I started doing stupid things," she confesses.
Her determination to tell me about her life is becoming fragile. We continue slowly. Laughter replaces the tears when she talks about her little girls. "The youngest one was sick just now and couldn't come to nursery school, but she was so looking forward to it, she always wants to learn something," she tells me proudly. We return to the "stupid things": "When my mother passed away, I started doing drugs." She ended up in an orphanage, ran away, and lived on the street. "I was sleeping outside. Dad found me and sent me to my great-grandmother in Slovakia. He destroyed my last injection needle, that was a very strange feeling," she recalls.
Janka met her boyfriend in Slovakia, but at the age of 18 she married a Macedonian man who needed citizenship. "He gave me CZK 50 000 for it, I needed the money," she explains to me.
After returning to Ústí they settled in the little gardens in Předlice. Her father is living in the same colony. "My sister-in-law lives here too, we get our electricity from her," she says.
There was no water source when they moved in. "We dug our own well. We heat the water up on the stove to bathe and do laundry. I hand-wash everything, but I don't know how to do it very well. I want the children to have clean clothes," she says.
The situation with drinking water is worse. "For that we must visit the well in the forest, it takes an hour to get there and an hour to get back," Janka says, relishing the fact that she can make the water in her canisters last as long as three days. Looking for wood to burn is also more work, but the little cabin can be heated well.
The future is alive
Janka is pinning her hopes on getting a social apartment. People in Need is trying to negotiate one for her and things seem to be on the right path. "We may move in as soon as March," she says.
She would have much better luck than most of the others if that were to happen. "There is a desperate lack of social apartments here," Radka Kunešová of People in Need confirms to me.
Janka is over the moon at the idea that she might one day live in a newly reconstructed apartment building. She fidgets all over when she talks about possibly having a washing machine for the first time in her life. However, she won't give up the little garden, as she and her boyfriend will probably be able to put together the CZK 800 per year it costs to lease.
"We need somewhere for the cats and dogs, I can't take them to an apartment. We love our animals more than people," she says.
When I ask what she wishes for most in her life, she mainly talks about her children: "I want them to have what I never had. I want to take them on a trip someday. I know I don't have the money for it, but I really want to try." She also thinks of her boyfriend: "He would really like to find work so he could support us. He's doing his best. He's always going somewhere, calling around."
Most people openly ask him on the phone whether he is Romani. No one here is held back by any politically correct beating around the bush. Those who don't ask just tell him after he arrives that unfortunately they just hired someone else.
Ms Ilona and her husband describe the same experience to me later, as do many other people with whom I speak in Předlice. The People in Need social workers confirm it all by nodding their heads. They are often sitting right there during those phone calls, or they have tried themselves to negotiate jobs for Romani people. Almost everyone in Předlice is unemployed, but that doesn't mean they don't work. A large proportion of them want to work and do, just under the table. They have no other choice.
My travels in Ústí nad Labem did not end in Předlice. I also visited Krásné Březno, the infamous Matiční street, and the Nový svět quarter. My next pieces will be about the perspectives of those who spend eight hours of every working day with those on the outskirts, with the people in whom no one is interested, unless they need to get rid of them. I'll be reporting on the field social workers of People in Need, the team I met this morning in the middle of Ústí at 8AM on Pařížská street.
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