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Human rights activist: The Czech state is holding impoverished people hostage, the ombud will do what she can

15.6.2015 23:13
Kumar Vishwanathan, head of the Life Together (Vzájemné soužití) NGO in the Czech Republic. (PHOTO:   Lukáš Houdek)
Kumar Vishwanathan, head of the Life Together (Vzájemné soužití) NGO in the Czech Republic. (PHOTO: Lukáš Houdek)

Local councils across the Czech Republic have begun taking advantage of an amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress that has shifted the power to decide on the awarding of housing benefits from local branches of the state's Labor Offices to municipalities. This is the result of declared efforts to combat residential hotels that are not up to code and the "traffickers in poverty" who run them, but in many towns this has instead become a fight against the impoverished people who are living in these facilities.

Entire families with children and hundreds of individuals could end up on the street from one day to the next. According to Kumar Vishwanathan, director of the Ostrava-based organization Life Together (Vzájemné soužití), this is an irresponsible gamble with human lives.

"To consciously destabilize hundreds and thousands of people, including entire families with children, is absolutely irresponsible on the part of the state. I think it is appropriate to consider a Constitutional complaint, because the state cannot intentionally harm its own citizens in this way. This procedure is illegal and contravenes the principles of good administration. I respect the fact that bureaucrats and MPs need time to address this, but some local administrations are exacerbating the situation disproportionately. The state is just playing hocus-pocus with people and the result is fear, insecurity and panic," Vishwanathan told news server Romea.cz.

"I was at a meeting with representatives of the town of Bohumín, where they have rejected all 124 applications for housing benefits. They are apparently intentionally attempting to escalate the situation so Labor and Social Affairs Minister Marksová will start paying attention to this bad legislation. Impoverished people here are just hostages and this is a completely useless state of war. The minister is silent," he said.  

Who bears responsibility?

The Labor and Social Affairs Minister has sent news server Romea.cz a statement objecting to the characterization of her as not having devoted sufficient attention to the situation:  "Under no circumstances am I ignoring this situation - I contacted the GŘ ÚP [General Directorate of the Labor Office - editors] with a request that the situation with housing benefits be precisely mapped, stating that we want to know the specific cases of people whose requests for benefits have been rejected and the proposasl of the municipalities as to how they intend to address these families' situations - by law a municipality must take care of its inhabitants."  

Marksová also says that those who are responsible for the fates of those applying for housing benefits are local politicians first and foremost:  "Local politicians are mainly the ones who have a direct influence on the fates of people in their communities and they must accept their responsibility, which, by the way, they do in the vast majority of cases. Once the Union of Cities and Municipalities elects its new leadership I will be glad to meet with them about this matter."

Genuinely exceptional immediate aid

Vishwanathan is also warning that in Ostrava there is already enough available housing to accommodate the families and individuals in this crisis situation. According to his information, Ostrava has about 1 400 apartment units available.  

"The local administration would have to announce an emergency situation and create a new list of those people who should at least receive temporary housing as a matter of priority," Vishawanathan says of the situation in Ostrava. News server Romea.cz also asked Adam Fialík, the head of the field social work program for the Brno-based organization IQ Roma servis, what the situation is like in Brno and its surroundings, and he said they are anticipating problems now.

"In Brno, for the time being, fortunately no crisis has developed, but we are expecting it to do so this month, when the impact of the new amendment could make itself fully felt. Brno City Hall is doing its best to meet with the owners of the residential hotels to address this situation. As far as the residential hotels whose operating rules have not been approved are concerned, there is the risk that 50 - 60 applications for benefits to reside in those facilities will not be approved. Naturally that number reflects a larger number of people," he said.

Once people learn that a town has rejected their application for housing benefits, Fialík says they should go to the local Labor Office to request exceptional immediate aid (mimořádná okamžitá pomoc or MOP). "Currently an agreement should work with the Labor Office that in emergency cases they will provide an MOP for up to three months, but unfortunately this is probably not working everywhere. At a minimum it should be working in the South Moravian Region, which we have confirmed with the head of the methodology department of the Labor Office branch there, Mr Piňous," he explained to news server Romea.cz.

Given the limited options of nonprofit organizations and their accommodation capacities in Brno and its surroundings, Fialík says the future is very uncertain. "I do not have any information that the City of Brno is arranging, for example, to use its available apartments for emergency cases. We have only one apartment for such purposes and it is already occupied. I am concerned that the other nonprofits or shelters are already completely full," he said.  

No safety net

This is confirmed by Jakub Čihák, director of the R-Mosty organization, who works mainly in Prague and Central Bohemia. "There is no safety net to help people in housing crises across the board. The most people in such circumstances can do is turn to facilities that are registered social services providers, such as hostels or shelters, and during the day there are some daytime centers where they can be," he told news server Romea.cz.

"Before this [amendment] there was supposed to be a law on social housing. Now, however, there is nothing to do but recommend just one thing - go to the Labor Office and request an MOP, which should cover the necessary costs of housing, again and again. However, that can only be requested three times. If the Labor Office refuses to award it, the person should appeal or go spend the night at their office - there won't be any other option," Čihák said.

He also believes that several variations on this theme could play themselves out over the months to come. One variation is that the Constitutional Court will label the amendment unconstitutional, which will lead to it being revoked.

Another is that some Labor Offices will disburse the MOP more than three times. However, those options will take six months to a year or longer to take effect.

In the interim, hundreds and thousands of people could end up forlorn on the streets. According to a recent report by the GAC company about socially excluded localities, there are at least 27 000 people living in residential hotels who receive the housing benefit.  

News server Romea.cz interviewed Kumar Vishwanathan about these developments:

Q:  Do you know of any families or individuals who have been fully impacted by this amendment in practice?

A:  Right now the Labor Offices will be officially communicating to people whether their applications for housing benefits have been rejected by the local authorities or not. From the media, however, we already know that in Bohumín all of the applications will be rejected. Last week I was also in Opava, where all of the applications are going to be approved. Zbyněk Stanjura, a town councilor there, said they will be approved, which is a paradox, because the motion leading to the creation of this amendment came from Opava. It was his proposal, but in Opava no one is in danger of eviction.  

Q:  Does that mean the residential hotels in Opava where those applicants live are ok?

A:  It's more that the town council decided to award people the benefits because to reject them would mean they would have had to solve the new problem of what to do with the people who would then lose the roof over the heads. They think pragmatically, and basically responsibly, they don't want to destabilize families who would suddenly have even bigger problems.

Q:  So actually, as far as combating "trafficking in poverty" and residential hotels that are not up to code, basically nothing will change. The town council is not taking advantage of an instrument that Mr Stanjura himself proposed because they would then have to address even more of a crisis...

A:  Yes, and the current state of affairs benefits no one, not the people who are absolutely destabilized, mainly families with children, and not most local administrations, whom it also does not serve, because it's more work for them. The municipalities must justify their rejections, but frequently they don't have enough data about these specific families, they don't have staffers in the field - those competences were transferred to the Labor Offices, but those offices are not making these decisions now. That's why I believe the municipalities are incapable of properly justifying their rejections of these applications, because frequently they just do not have enough of an overview of their citizens' circumstances. They could, moreover, end up in legal disputes, a citizen can turn to NGOs or to the ombud and other institutions... A local administration doesn't necessarily have the people or time for that... The absolutely immoral business with the residential hotels is continuing. The amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress has not managed to break it up.    

Q:  That's Opava. What does this look like in Bohumín, which you also mentioned?

A:  Bohumín has confirmed that all of the applicants for housing benefits, of which at this moment there are around 160, or in real terms 300 - 400 people, have been rejected. What, basically, is the information source for that town about its citizens' situations? The head of the social welfare department of the town of Bohumín, Mr Ucháč, told me that the town launched a field social work investigation among those requesting this benefit. That is the kind of work by municipalities that was legally halted and transferred to the Labor Offices, but Bohumín has begun it again. Municipal bureaucrats are beginning to visit people to investigate their financial, housing and social situations. The aim is to find people whom the town might provide with accommodation, municipally-owned apartments, and who would also cooperate with NGOs, e.g., the Salvation Army in Ostrava. Bohumín is considering leasing their apartments to NGOs, who would sublet them to their clients.

Q:  Will the NGOs in Bohumín manage to arrange aid for everyone in such a situation?

A:  Certainly not, it is already clear now that the nonprofits there will not manage to cover the situation. That is why the town is looking for capacity with other NGOs outside the town limits. These are not exactly favorable prospects... Bohumín is, therefore, considering relaxing its criteria for leasing its housing. Originally they divided their inhabitants into two groups:  Those who deserve aid and those who don't. That's their basic philosophy. However, the criteria for who belonged to which group were very harsh, so according to my information, it seems the town will now begin to relax them. However, it will still be the case that the tenant can't owe the town any money for any unpaid obligations.  

Q:  This division into two groups naturally also affects families with children. In other words, children might fall into that category of those who do not deserve aid, but they are not responsible for their parents...

A:  That is an enormous risk. Nevertheless, the mayor of Bohumín has claimed to me that no one will end up sleeping underneath a bridge. I don't know what he is basing that claim on, though. Evidently he is seeking support elsewhere, in other municipalities. The head of their social welfare department even asked me about our options, momentarily we have three apartments available for the kinds of families who have been labeled as "undeserving of municipal aid"...  

Q:  What is your evaluation of what is going on around the housing benefits?

A:  I am ambivalent about it. The entire thing is based on whether municipalities take social security seriously for their residents. The law on aid to those in material distress, however, does not require that municipalities provide housing. Of course, if all these problems and human drama lead at least to a partial improvement compared to the original state of affairs - for example, if the municipalities begin to create social housing programs, make their housing stock available, or create new housing stock - then many people will welcome it. We, the staffers of nonprofit NGOs, will then be able to concentrate on the people whom the municipalities have pushed totally to the margins, those who cannot access any other aid.

Q:  Could you describe what will happen if someone wants to appeal a local authority's rejection of an application for housing benefits?

A:  If a town rejects someone's housing benefits, that citizen will be notified by the Labor Office that the local authority has blocked his or her legal entitlement to them. That citizen will then appeal. The Labor Office will send the appeal to the regional branch of the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, which will then send it to the Regional Authority. Here we can see the absurdity of the entire situation. The whole thing reminds me of one of Kafka's books.

Q:  Two approaches are clashing here...

A:  Yes. Rejection of benefits is, since May, dependent on a local authority's decision - and legally this is not a general administrative proceedings, but a municipal one... That is why the state, here in the form of the ministry, cannot respond to these rejections and must send any appeals about them to the Regional Authority. That authority will then respond that this falls within the municipality's purview and to case will be closed. The rejection of an application for this benefit is, therefore, termed "not subject to review". The paper with the decision will be sent back to the Labor Office and the citizen will receive a response stating that the matter is "not subject to review". The citizen at that moment could appeal to an administrative court, but that court cannot hand down an opinion on something that is not an administrative proceedings... The citizen, therefore, goes through several months of wandering through the system only to learn that, in this case, there is no solution to the matter. The Labor and Social Affairs Minister should see that this is the confusion of these two legal systems, two kinds of proceedings - an administrative proceeding vs. a municipal proceeding. This is absurd and will just lead to structural chaos.  

Q:  Labor and Social Affairs Minister Marksová wrote to us that she has contacted the General Directorate of the Labor Office with a request that they map the situation around rent defaulting and said she wants to know the specific cases of people whose benefits are rejected by municipalities...

A:  Fine, she will review these cases, but what will that do? The cases are "not subject to review". This system does not work, and like any proper financial manager, I must think 10 steps ahead and estimate what might happen. Ms Marksová should foresee where this might lead. There is a hopeless abyss ten steps down the line. I see a temporary solution in immediately lifting the restrictions on the provision of the MOP, which people can apply for at the Labor Offices once their housing benefits are rejected. Currently, however, they can only receive that a maximum of three times. Between now and when the MOP runs out, though, a total calamity could arise. The new school year is beginning, children must have school supplies, people will be moving around and staying with relatives, they will have nowhere to put the children...

Q:  Who can decide to increase the ceiling or lift the restrictions on the MOP?

A:  That is within the competence of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, that means Ms Marksová. By doing that, she would provide these at-risk families with more catch-up time until the competent people receive enough information, until the various analyses, round tables and every other thing possible takes place so the people in charge can realize this is a dead end.

Q:  Is the amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress sustainable?

A:  Given where it's all heading, no. It is necessary, in the interest of the citizens, in the interest of society, to rewrite that amendment, or to propose a new law, or someone should file a Constitutional complaint.

Q:  Why hasn't anyone done that yet?

A:  We must base it on a specific case. Every day we are waiting for those notifications from the Labor Office to arrive, informing our clients that on the basis of the local administration's decision, their applications for housing benefits have been rejected. We have agreed with the ombud, Ms Šabatová, that once the Labor Office receives that official information from a town that a client's housing benefit has been rejected and the client is officially notified of that fact, we will help the clients file appeals and send copies of those decisions, as sent from the Labor Office, to the ombud so she can file a Constitutional complaint. Right now all the NGOs should pay attention - if people in this situation come to you, help them apply for the MOP and file an appeal, and, with their consent, get a copy of the rejection decision to send to the ombud. This time period is also important for another reason - the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry is supposed to send the Labor Office instructions regarding how the MOP can be used now.  

Q:  You are also in contact with the representatives of various smaller towns. What do you believe their opinion is of this situation?

A:  The Czech Union of Cities and Municipalities is the key player here, but it is currently experiencing a schism. Most of the smaller towns and villages do not like the way big cities are proceeding, because the big cities for quite some time have been expelling impoverished people and Romani people beyond their limits. These people are becoming victims of the "traffickers in poverty", who are buying up buildings and houses at what are, for them, just symbolic prices, and then housing elderly and impoverished people in them (who do not have the opportunity to acquire housing elsewhere) for absurdly high prices. Before Christmas, five mayors of small communities came to see me so we could consult on what they can do. I was terribly moved, they were actually conscientious people who were shocked that suddenly, overnight, dozens of people including entire families with young children were turning up in their villages - in a region where there is no work and where the local authority has no capacity even though it wants to help all it can. These municipal representatives are angered by the irresponsibility of the big cities, which are not solving these problems and, instead of working with impoverished people, are expelling them beyond their limits into these small communities. Similarly, I met with the director of the psychiatric hospital in Bílá Voda. Just like the mayors of the small communities, he warned of a desperate situation - we have so many people here who are frequently lost in alcohol, their children wander the streets, there are drugs... It's the total collapse of society. He asked what they can do, because it's getting worse. The explanation is clear - for a long time the "trafficking in poverty" was ignored at various levels, and now we have this absurd amendment that is sending us straight to hell. The Czech Union of Cities and Municipalities is divided now - on the one hand there is this instrument of the amendment, which serves those who want to expel unpopular groups like impoverished people, the Roma, and senior citizens... If this newly-established system is not changed, the seriousness of the situation will intensify.

Jitka Votavová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Kumar Vishwanathan, Michaela Marksová-Tominová, sociální bydlení, ubytovny



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