Founded by students in 2012, Pragulic – a social enterprise that helps the city’s homeless find work as tour guides – is seeing a growth in interest. Led by Robert, who has been without a permanent address for 12 years, Andrew Day veers off the Czech capital’s well-worn cobblestones to experience homelessness firsthand. But is it tourism or voyeurism?
“Here’s a Nokia programmed with emergency contacts, and your budget for the next 24 hours: 20 koruna (70p). Now I just need your clothes.”
It’s a cold January morning outside Prague train station and I’m surrendering my parka and trousers to Tereza Jurečková, co-founder of Pragulic. In exchange, I’m given a plastic bag containing a beige shellsuit jacket with a jammed zip and a pair of stained khaki trousers. I look around, and quickly get changed.
The shabby clothing is all part of the Pragulic experience: “You can only start to understand homelessness after you have tried it yourself,” as the website puts it.
Alongside Tereza stands my guide, Robert Pochop – a forty-something man with Tiggerish energy, who is keen to get going. Over the next 24 hours, Robert will be taking me to some of his regular haunts – and revealing a different side of Prague in the process.
We say our goodbyes to Tereza and head into the busy station.
Mindful of his responsibility, Robert ushers me across the concourse – though, as we pass a ticket machine, he instinctively checks the slot for coins. We ride countless trains, and eventually arrive in Smíchov – an industrialised district mixing faded glory – of dilapidated factories and synagogues – with a newfound style made up of glass malls and boutique restaurants.
“There,” Robert said, pointing to the ČKD Tatra factory, which produced trams for Stalin’s Communist party in the late 1940s. Robert’s enthusiasm for the railroads is boundless and provides a unique way into Czech history and culture.
And we’re off again, passing Staropramen (Prague’s largest brewery) to reach the Salvation Army, where Robert works.
It’s not clear what we are doing – Robert’s explanations are sometimes cryptic – then, I’m shepherded towards a pyramid of cardboard boxes, which we, and half a dozen other employees, haul downstairs for the charity’s office move.
Robert is one of nine guides currently working with Pragulic. They earn a fixed fee per tour plus tips, with the rest reinvested into running costs.
“But it’s not just about finding employment,” Tereza explained earlier. “We offer guides a range of development programs, from teaching English to building self-confidence.”
Via a dose of Czech politics we arrive at Cibulka, a pretty but otherwise unremarkable park, dotted with crumbling Baroque statues. While stopping by an 1840s lookout tower, Robert reveals that we will be sleeping on the floor of his late father’s flat. Soon he will have to leave when the property is sold. “To where?” I ask. “Who knows,” he replies, before changing the subject.
He keeps his living area – a floor-to-ceiling mass of motley possessions and rubbish – in a state of disarray. Around 10pm, I clear plastic bottles and newspapers from the hallway and try, unsuccessfully, to sleep.
Emerging in the early hours we take the first tram to district 5, where, in stark contrast, well-tended mansions and luxury apartments overlook the city. It’s a lovely view, but we are here to deliver newspapers – Robert’s 6am round earns him a bit of extra cash.
It’s on these prosperous streets that Robert speaks candidly about his descent into homelessness. After his uncle sold the family home in 2006, Robert found himself sleeping rough in the capital. “Unfortunately he married a woman that would like me dead,” he says whilst forcing open a frozen mailbox.
With a now empty delivery bag and our 24 hours complete, we head back to Prague station to collect my belongings and, sadly, part ways.
Critics claim that tagging along with society’s poorest is more voyeurism than tourism. Perhaps that’s true. But the extent to which these tours are welcomed should be decided by the guides themselves.
Robert, for one, believes his new, if unorthodox, work has helped get his life back on track, “I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Beyond Pragulic there are plenty of similar initiatives where homeless tour guides are employed to offer an alternative view of their city. Here, we’ve picked four of our favourites:
1. Shades Tours, Vienna
Launched in 2015, the aim here is to change the way tourists experience Vienna, whilst reducing the stigma associated with homeless people. As founder Perrine Schober puts it: “Nobody leaves with the same picture of homelessness they harbored before.”
Professional and often personal two-hour tours (available in English and German) introduce small groups to a hidden side of the city via soup kitchens and emergency night shelters. You’ll learn how the Viennese social system works and gain insight into the many “shades” of homelessness that exist.
2. Los Angeles Mission, Los Angeles
Bang in the center of downtown LA, groups of 10 to 25 people can experience “24 Hours of Homelessness” on the streets of Skid Row – the city’s sprawling homeless encampment.
Ivan Klassen, director of the neighbourhood’s non-profit Christian mission, hopes to “communicate the reality of homelessness, in a safe and informative framework” and encourages participants to “engage” at the drop-in centres and dining halls visited on the tour.
The programme costs $75 per head and visitors must be 14 years or over.
3. Hidden City Tours, Barcelona
With these tours, formerly homeless guides offer a fresh perspective on Barcelona. In-depth, two-hour tours aim to “show the hidden layers of the Gothic and Raval quarters”, interwoven with personal stories revealing the daily challenges of homelessness in the city – from making money to seeking out a sleeping spot.
Guides speak English, French or German (as well as their native Spanish and Catalan), and earn fixed hourly salaries, plus pocket 100 percent of tips.
Meeting points and times vary so phone ahead.
4. Unseen Tours, London
Themes include street art and music; but beyond Banksy and Britpop these award-winning strolls – designed and led by the capital’s homeless or formerly homeless people – touch upon the causes behind social injustice and provide guides with paid work for food and ultimately housing.
Most walks last two hours and dogs are welcome.
Andrew’s trip to Prague was supported by EasyJet who offer flights from London Gatwick, London Stansted, Manchester and Bristol; find out more at easyjet.com.
Image credits top to bottom (left–right): Smichov waterfront © RTeo/Shutterstock; Railway in Prague © luciezr/Shutterstock; Robert Pochop © Andrew Day; Street in Prague © buruhtan/Shutterstock; Robert Pochop © Andrew Day; Robert Pochop © Andrew Day; Robert Pochop © Andrew Day; Brick wall in New London, Connecticut © Iv Art/Shutterstock; Shades Tours © Patrick Sabitzer; Hidden City Tours © Vincenzo Rigogliuso.