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Homeless tour shows visitors "dark side" of Prague

posted 17 Dec 2012, 07:16 by Mpelembe   [ updated 17 Dec 2012, 07:17 ]

Prague tour company takes visitors on a walk through the Czech capital's homeless areas.

 PRAGUECZECH REPUBLIC  (REUTERS) -  Think of Prague, and for the average tourist picturesque vistas, old cobblestone streets and a certain hilltop castle typically come to mind.

But for people taking part in a Pragulic city tour, a much darker side of the city is revealed.

Former homeless people, drug addicts and beggars are employed by Pragulic to show visitors around places they used to know as 'home'. Drug addict hangouts, homeless areas and strips frequented by street walkers searching for custom all feature.

Strolling the streets with a sizeable group in tow, 38 year-old tour guide Karim reveals the downward spiral a person can fall into when living on the street.

"Vaclavak (Wenceslas square) is a zone of foreign prostitution. Here there are only foreign girls "street walking", not Czech. There are no men here, only women, usually with their pimps and usually Ukranian," Karim explains.

Karim's tour begins at Prague's main railway station, where he himself learned lessons on life in the gutter years earlier. Karim fell into drugs, prostitution and homelessness after becoming involved with a gang in his mid-teens.

"I came to Prague when I was 15-16-years-old. I got caught up with a gang and it brought me into drugs, prostitution, beggary and homelessness. I was on the street for more than 20 years and I finished with prostitution just a short time ago. I finished several years ago with drugs and beggary and luckily got a place in an accommodation centre," Karim said.

Since August, about 430 people have paid 200 crowns ($10.31) to visit the places where some ofPrague's homeless gather.

Half of the proceeds go to the guide and the rest to student-run agency Pragulic, set up after it won a 1,500-euro social entrepreneurship award.

"We are trying to be different from the usual Prague tours arranged by the commercial agencies. We are trying to offer people something different that they can not find anywhere else. We are connecting life on the streets, homelessness and town memorials. We want to bring people close to the homeless life so that they understand what it is about," says Pragulic tour organiser, Tereza Jureckova.

For Karim, giving the city tours is a valuable opportunity to tell others what he went through.

"Working for the Pragulic company means a lot to me - I am in contact with customers and I am giving them the experiences I had and which they should know about because anyone can end up on the street at any time," he says.

His message seems to hit home with several of the tour participants.

"I think that Karim did it very well and interestingly, " tourist Petr remarks. "I liked it, it was a lesson for me and now I will think about many things differently."

"It was a strong experience for me. I liked it very much and I will only recommend it to other people," said Jana, another group member.

Prague's homeless population, estimated at around 4,500, has not changed significantly in the last three years despite two recessions in the Czech Republic during that period.

Yet a common sight for tourists arriving at the city's main railway station is groups of homeless people sharing cartons of wine.

There are around 600,000 homeless people in Europe, with about a tenth living "rough" on the streets, according to estimates cited by the U.N. Human Settlements Programme.

In ex-Communist countries like the Czech Republic many have been sheltered from the worst of the euro zone debt crisis due to cradle-to-grave state welfare systems, but as that support is eroded there are fears that their numbers could begin to grow.