Personal Problem or a Failure of Society?
The topic of today's discussion is homelessness, which is really a pressing issue in our society. First of all, let me introduce our guests from Visegrad countries: Mrs. Lída Tomešová, Centre of Social Services in Prague, Czech Republic, Mr. Martin Opeta from Slovakia, who works for a civic association and publishes the street journal entitled Nota Bene, Mr Gábor Iványi, Rector of John Wesley Theological College, chairman at the charity organization Oltalom (Shelter) in Hungary and Mr. Bohdan Aniszczyk, chairman at st.Brother Albert's Aid Society in Poland. First, I ask Mr. Gábor Iványi to introduce the situation in Hungary.
I am very glad to speak about this serious problem here today. First of all, I would like to say that I have an emotional relationship with Slovakia. My grandmother on my mother's side comes from Dunajská Streda. Personally I have never been to this city, but once I would like to have a look at the birth record of the evangelical church in Dunajská Streda. My grandma's surname was Husz, so she was probably the descendant of Hussites. In my family there are also Slovaks on my grandpa's side as well as Serbs, Jews, thus my ancestors are not pureblood Hungarians at all. That's just it, I think that all the nations in Central Europe have common lines. My second emotional bond to Slovakia is Masaryk, whom I respect very much. We would like to issue a biographical book about him; we contacted the Masaryk Association, which really kindly supported our struggle regarding the translation of this book. I'm glad to talk about the problem of homelessness in a country which I like very much. I would like to emphasise that I'm chancellor of the János Wesley Theological University. This school was established by the Protestant Church in 1987. Currently, it is one of the most important training centres for social workers. We have approximately one thousand students and in fact, social workers make up the biggest group. Besides theoretical education, we also put an emphasis on practice. Twenty years ago, in 1988 we established the charitable association "Solace". The law on associations was already accepted in Hungary before the changes. This law enabled us to establish such an organisation. From the end of the seventies up to the end of the eighties it was not possible to form such civil organisations. There was an organisation called "Népfront" (Popular Front), which combined all the activities that could possibly be executed by civil organisations. The activity of civil movements was very important between the two World Wars, but in the era of socialism all the decisions were made by the state, therefore in social issues as well. I personally belonged to the democratic opposition in the seventies and I made closer contact with experts who dealt with poverty in rural areas of Hungary. I was a priest for three years in the poorer, north-eastern part of Hungary, thus I gained direct experience in the field of poor Romany and non-Romany populations. I collaborated with sociologists and other experts, who founded the "Fund for the support of poor people". It was a very important step, since this group took the liberty of speaking about poor Hungarian people as well as organising fundraising events, e.g. auctions or benefit concerts.
From the money raised, the Fund helped the most indigent and homeless people. On the basis of this movement, in 1993 the education of social workers began at the Theological University, which was established in 1987. The education was carried out by those sociologists who we were involved with the above mentioned charitable activity. However, I return to the problem of homelessness. The first casualty ward in Hungary was established in the nineteenth century, in 1876. This casualty ward was founded by the Masonic Lodge "The Old Faithful Brothers". It was the beginning of institutional care for homeless people. The first homeless community was probably formed from the dependents of cheap labour forces. These kind of communities were formed in large numbers at the turn of the 19th and 20th century in conjunction with the Millennium celebrations.
After World War I, due to political and geographical changes in our territory, it was necessary to create mass accommodation. In this way institutions were created, as well as social care for individuals and groups in the capital. We were the second in Europe to build up four Englishtype lodging houses between 1910-14. These really modern lodging houses, including their equipment, provided accommodation for unemployable homeless persons, who found themselves in the capital and wanted to occupy themselves. These buildings still exist, they are one of the most important institutions for homeless people. Homelessness in Hungary became a visible phenomenon again after the changes in 1989. During socialism, the state tried to solve the problem with the creation of lodging houses and other social services. Approximately one hundred thousand people lived in lodging houses and other facilities for workers, especially in big cities. It was a cheap labour force, which worked on huge state investments. At the end of the 80s, homeless people in Central and Eastern Europe who did not have rural roots, found themselves on the street due to political and economic changes. Homeless people did not have the social system to solve their problems.
During the winter of 1989 a few hundred homeless people emerged in one of the railway stations of Budapest. The whole country was on the alert, since we were not prepared for a solution to this problem. At first, homeless people were accommodated in gyms and empty army barracks. The first civil organisations were established at that time. The first association which set an objective to support homeless people was established at the end of 1988. In 1988 we founded the charitable association "Solace". I am the president of this association. We have 600 people. It is not easy to say if a homeless person is the shame of society or that it is his/her personal problem, since both the society and the person himself are responsible for the resulting situation. It is, of course a kind of a way of making yourself miserable, but also the mentioned social consequences after the change played a major role in creating a new class of powerless people. Unfortunately, Hungarian society is impatient with this group of people. On the other hand, the problems of those individuals who lose their fight with illnesses that require medical treatment also play an important role in the creation of homelessness. However, society has its own responsibility in the sphere of health services and all the other spheres as well.
Thank you for the summary of the situation in Hungary? How is it in Slovakia?
I am the director of the association "Against the Stream" (Proti prúdu). This civil association was founded through the initiative of students of social work in order to create the journal "Nota Bene". The journal has been running since 2001. Regarding the issue of homelessness, I would like to say that homeless people are those who do not have any accommodation, do not have any relationship with their family, have problems with dependence on drugs, alcohol, were punished, came from children's homes or fell out with their family and left. Our main effort is to be a part of the solution for homelessness in Slovakia. Our programme is a labour motivational programme, where the client is not an object of help but is led to self-help. My slogan is: nobody helps you in this world if you are not able to help yourself. So, we can plough the sand if the concerned person does not want to help himself; it would be just a waste of time and energy. We use different factors to collaborate with people wholly dependent on social help and who live on the street for a long time This kind of help is actually the abovementioned journal; homeless people sell it, they earn money with it and there is a chance to become economically stable. They have the possibility to get in touch with society, to communicate with people and moreover, they have to keep certain rules. This project contains some additional services like social consultant services, access to internet, telephone, deposit of personal documents and money and free time activities as well. We do everything in our power to make these men active in order for them to believe in their own inner potential. If the man starts to believe, he starts to make changes in his own life. If the man starts to believe in himself, he will be able to solve his own situation. All the services currently provided for homeless people in Slovakia were organised by volunteers or Christian organisations, but nothing was determined by law.
Therefore, I am glad that the Act on social support specifically defines those institutions, which have to be established by communities in order to continue work with this group of people. Whether the problem of homelessness is a problem of society or the individual, I incline towards the opinion of Mr. Iványi. Society provides ideal conditions for an individual's personal development and thereby more sensitive individuals or those who have a greater tendency to solve situations badly could easily "end up in the gutter". These last 7 years we have succeeded in running the street paper project in 20 cities across Slovakia. We cooperate with different organisations, especially charitable institutions. We register twenty thousand homeless people in Bratislava. There are no statistics in Slovakia on the number of homeless people. In the Czech Republic, it is said that their number is about a hundred thousand. In our project we have two hundred active dealers monthly. Have we succeeded in getting them back to society? It is very difficult to talk in numbers.
The longer the person stays on the street, the longer it takes him to get out of this miserable situation. Such a person does not have work habits and suffers from depression. If somebody stays on the street for 5 years, it will probably take him another 5 years to recover. If he's not able to find a job, he will occupy himself for 6 months then he will meet an "irresolvable" problem, he will lose his self-confidence and get back to where he was before. He does not have anybody to rely on. In my opinion, the family should be the most significant support for such people. If there is a betrayal in the family, it falls apart and does not offer a shelter for those in need, it will result in blocking the way home for the person in question. The family is the primary factor of support. As long as the family does not administer relief in a difficult situation, it is very difficult to expect remedy from others. In order to keep unity within the family, each of its members should better themselves. Anyone who stops it, loses the respect of the others, starts to create conflicts and all the family members will have problems. If one of the family members has a propensity to violence, then a complicated situation can occur, which means the social segregation of one of the family members. Such a man needs help from other organisations. These organisations are in a difficult situation if this person has something firmly established in his mind that should be cleared up.
So, there is a dilemma: whether homelessness is a problem of the individual or the society, moreover we could add the problem of the family. Let us see, how is it in the Czech Republic.
The problem of homelessness is an actual topic that worries our society too. I work for the centre of social services in Prague, which focuses on the problem of homelessness, and other disadvantaged groups. We cannot perceive homelessness without a connection to fieldwork. It's probably not true, that we have a hundred thousand homeless people in the Czech Republic.. The number of homeless people in Prague is between 3-6 thousand. Homeless people in the Czech Republic can be found mostly among poor people in big cities as well as in regions with a high unemployment rate, that means Northern Bohemia and Northern Moravia. Many homeless people move to Prague, so the biggest problem is there, since the number of homeless people is continually growing. Recently, there have been a lot of discussions about how to get rid of the problem of homelessness indefinitely. Many studies and plans were created regarding this topic. Nevertheless, the status of homelessness is a problem of individuals, it is also a vital topic of society as it interferes with the community of people on different levels; partnerships, families, as well as society itself.
The biggest problem in the sphere of homelessness is the process of their returning to society. This process requires very important social interventions in the life of homeless people. It is necessary to have somebody to personally take care of a man who has the courage to return into society and start a new life. Of course, the ideal solution would be if one social worker could take care of one man who ended up on the periphery of the society. Unfortunately, we do not have as many social workers as we would need. The casework requires special abilities and motivation. Only a few people want to work with homeless people. In order to have a long-term solution it is necessary to change the attitude of society. We try to help homeless people for a short term. We provide them with health care and additional services as well, but homeless people have much different problems, which are hidden from society. It is necessary to prepare them for a return to society not only in terms of their health but also mentally. We try to work with people to enable them to find a positive reference to themselves. Concerning short-term assistance, in Prague there is a mobile medical surgery, which provides examinations for homeless people and helps to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Health programmes for homeless people cost about twenty million Slovak crowns annually and they are financed from the budget of the Labour Department. The project of returning homeless people to the labour market has already been realised. One third of homeless people participated in this project. According to available data, more than a thousand people went through the training and 170 people were hired. If we take into consideration that in this group there were also people who had problems with the law or suffered different addictions, this number is not so small. I would like to share with you a curiosity. In Prague we have a special night shelter for homeless people, which is situated on a boat. A 74-metre long cargo boat was reconstructed for this purpose. The capacity of this boat is 250 people. They can stay there from the evening to the morning. Besides this boat, in Prague, there are 600 more beds for homeless people in shelters.
The question of homelessness is very topical in Poland as well. The number of homeless people continuously increases, but it is still less than three thousand in Wroclav. It means that the number of homeless people in Poland is about 40-60 thousand. These are the people we consider to be homeless. I am talking about those who do not have a roof above their head or live in some kind of a lodging house. There is another group of people who live under miserable conditions, but we do not consider them homeless.
In Poland it is like this, in Europe this classification is more precise and includes also those "god-forsaken" people, who are legally homeless but in fact they live in their own apartments. Whether homelessness is a problem of the individual or society? Homeless people who choose this status themselves do not exist. All of them sank down in his or her life and we were not able to help them. The blame is on both sides. The homeless person is a man who has propensities for homelessness but society did not help him in need. The state policy considers homelessness a condition of being expelled. According to law it is necessary to help homeless people. But the truth is that most of the help comes from nongovernmental organisations and not from local governments. In Poland, we have approximately 700 homeless people who get help from non-governmental organisations. One of these organisations is the Association of Brother Albert. It deals with about seventy homeless people. We have lodging houses, which are mostly led by different organisations, only one third of them is controlled by local governments. The responsibility, according to the law, is on the local governments' side but in reality the non-governmental organisations take care of homeless people. The Association of Brother Albert has been working for 27 years. We started our activity under socialism with those veteran workers of socialism who travelled from construction to construction, lived in different hotels and most frequently became alcoholics. They did not immediately become homeless, they became homeless in their middle age. The situation today has already changed. The group of homeless people consists of mostly young people who did not find support in their families. The reasons for homelessness are different: alcohol, addiction to medication, etc. It is also possible to be "addicted to homelessness". It takes a long time to recover from the state of homelessness. The responsibility is on the state's shoulders but programmes are created by non-governmental organisations. It is an assistance provided with the approval of the ministry. The governmental and non-governmental organisations are engaged in concerted action.
To what my colleague from Prague said I would like to add, that a certain part of the problems in our country have already disappeared. Many homeless people have left for abroad. Last week an organisation from London invited us to help with homeless Polish people in London, since some homeless people in London have different Polish origins. There are homeless people, who need short term assistance and some of them have been there for years. They don't want to return to Poland because they are being prosecuted or they have to pay alimony in Poland, so they would have to give their finances to distrainers. It is a big problem how to help those homeless people abroad, who are in a bad legal situation, are prosecuted and have debts. In Poland, similarly to Prague, there is a law which states that units, or centres of social integration should be established. These are institutions that deal with homeless people in practice and not only with them, but also with those people who are threatened by the outside world.
It is a system of work which is expensive, since as my colleague said, it should be at the rate of 1:1, that is each homeless person should have one social worker. Of course, the state cannot finance it, since it does not have enough resources for it. If it could afford it, there would be no approval from society because it says it isn't advisable to help drunkards. But if they don't receive any help, it isn't possible for them to get out of their miserable situation. To be honest, in our organisation we have the experience that neither a job nor an apartment nor medication can help homeless people to get out effectively of the state of homelessness. There must be all three mentioned factors together. It is necessary for them to learn to work, dwell, dispose of a budget, make plans for the future, forecast, as well as to realise that they have to pay certain charges in the future. All these factors together help homeless people to find the right way, but to achieve it requires a very complicated assistance system. The ministry invited non-governmental organisations to establish such a system, which should be the result of European projects in Poland. Projects financed by European funds enabled us to show that there are effective methods to help those homeless people who are serving punishment. The new element is streetworking, looking for contacts where the homeless person stays.
Therefore, we search for them in places where they live, under the bridge, on the stairs, at the railway station. People from such places would never come to us on their own will. Street-working came into existence as a natural working method using European resources and projects. Our task is to realise these projects and continue their accomplishments. From practical experience we recognise that the integration of the homeless person has several levels. In our association, there are different types of institutions. The first is simple heated public rooms where one can come either sober or drunk and he can have a rest in a warm room. These heated public rooms are usually near to railway stations. Another type of institution is a place where a man can come in the evening and has to leave in the morning, so by day he has to seek help somewhere else. Then there are lodging houses, where a man can stay for 24 hours. In such places, homeless people are more independent. After all, there are protected apartments. After the homeless person passes through all the above levels, he could have a chance to return to society. This system is necessary, however, the group of homeless people is varied, thus not all of them need the same help. Some of them need the first level, while some can start with the third or fourth level, especially women with children.
In Poland, the situation is favourable, since we can build the system of assistance for homeless people from European resources and at the same time, we can enter the problem deeper as well, as we have got a chance to uncover the problem of homelessness. To conclude I would like to tell you of one curiosity. In the town of Łódź we have a bus, which cruises around the town, passes the places where homeless people could be. It passes out warm soup by night and clothing for those who do not want to come to our institutions under any circumstances.
These were the presentations of our experts about homelessness. The perception of homeless people in society is probably deeply wedded also to their looks. The general view of homeless people is quite negative. People, who don't have experience with homeless people or don't work with them, usually don't really sympathise with them. They stay in the railway station, they are drunk, they don't look very attractive and have all the already mentioned problems as well, such as missing personal documents, all sorts of history, derailment from their own family and community, removal to other cities, etc. Now, I would like to invite the audience to discuss the topic. What is your opinion on this issue? What kind of questions would you put to our guests?
I still remember the so-called "first republic". At this time, according to the law, homeless people should have the right to clamour for social justice, if they found themselves in a miserable situation. Today, what is the responsibility of the community the particular man comes from?
However, in my opinion, the situation is not so bad and we have only a few homeless people, there are only very few people who make use of social services. People who once got onto the street would not go home again. If the community has the obligation to take care of them? The question is what does this obligation actually mean? What does the community offer to homeless people? The community can offer a night shelter and soup and that's all. But many people would like to have their own privacy. Homeless people need not only warm water but also a place where they can return to if they feel like it. They need a place where they have their own things, which makes them feel like they were at home. It is then very difficult to send people to night shelters. But how to get back into the community where the homeless person was born, if he doesn't have enough money? Moreover, he doesn't even have motivation. He drinks and doesn't want to return to where people knew him; he doesn't want to go home.
In Poland, communities are basically obliged to help homeless people. But it is very difficult to find out which community the homeless person belongs to. So, this help practically doesn't exist. Naturally, if the community obliged to help was once located but proclaims that it doesn't have the financial resources for such support then this help is unrealisable.
In Hungary, there was an attempt to displace homeless people to villages which were gradually being abandoned by their inhabitants. It was the idea of the Maltese Association. At first glance, it seemed to be a good idea. But these villages are not being abandoned by accident; they are abandoned because working possibilities have disappeared during the last ten years. These villages don't have their own resources, so they cannot support homeless people at all. However, the legislation says that local municipalities are obliged to provide board and lodging for homeless people during the day, but in smaller villages it is impossible. The majority of homeless people became homeless because they were born in poor and neglected areas with a lack of working possibilities. That was the reason these people moved to big cities. It's presumable that homelessness is the problem of big cities everywhere in the world. Homeless people have more possibilities to meet other people in these cities. The human being is a social being and it is very important for him to feel solidarity.
Actually, Slovak law on social services did not determine institutions for homeless people as well as services, which should be provided by communities. As far as our proposal is accepted, the law will clearly define institutions that support homeless people. According to the number of homeless people, the community will be obliged to run such institutions. They will receive a state grant for this purpose. The state should ask for finances from the European Union. In this way, society finally has to establish sufficient services for homeless people and will be obliged to work with this group of people also in the future.
In conclusion I would like to ask all of you, what do you hold to be a success in your work? What have you achieved during these years in which you were involved with homeless people?
Our biggest success is the realisation of the project "Nota Bene". Furthermore, we succeeded in acquainting people with the problem of homelessness. It will also be a great success if the law on social services is accepted, since it more precisely defines conditions of custody of homeless people.
However, I cannot call our results a success, during the last few years we succeeded in establishing low-threshold services that are governed by the rules of the street, so only what is forbidden in the street is forbidden there. It came to light that people feel well there. We also have important results in the field of education. We have a school for homeless people, where we ensure special education within the regular school education system in the form of distance teaching, for instance a plumber course. We also founded a kindergarten for homeless people's children.
In recent years we tested the method of the so-called mutual participation., i.e., its regulated effect on homeless people. Initially we wanted the project to include 400 people and we hoped they would be successful. In the end, 600 hundred people found an occupation with our assistance.
During the discussion the guests spoke several times about employment as a source of financial stability. They also discussed how to teach people who live at the periphery of society to work, as well as to cope with everyday difficulties. In my opinion, we could be anywhere, in any kind of situation, but if we carry out the job we like and it brings us success, the whole story is not only about financial stability but also a source of our pleasure.
I think to find success in one's own work is very important. The words we just heard from the lady in the audience could serve as appropriate closing remarks for our debate. Thank you for joining us.
Gábor Iványi (Rector of John Wesley Theological College, chairman at the charity organization Oltalom [Shelter]), Martin Opeta (director of the Nota Bene streetpaper, Slovakia), Lída Tomešová (senior officer of the Centre for Social Services, Prague, Czech Republic), Bohdan Aniszczyk (chairman at St. Brother Albert's Aid Society, Poland). Moderator: Karolína Miková (senior officer, Partners for Democratic Change, Slovakia)