Social enterprise Pragulic employs homeless people in the Czech capital to raise awareness of the hardship of life on the streets. (Lisette Allen, The Guardian)
Karim, a former drug user and sex worker, is one of Pragulic’s homeless guides, giving tourists an alternative city tour. Photograph: Pragulic
Nicknamed Sherwood thanks to its reputation as a hangout of thieves and vagabonds, the park outside Hlavní Nádraží, Prague’s main train station, isn’t typically included on a walking tour of the Czech capital. However, it’s obvious from Karim’s shocking pink feather eyelashes and broken umbrella that he isn’t your average tour guide.
Karim, who spent decades on the streets as a sex worker and drug user, is one of ten homeless guides currently employed by the social enterprise. On Friday evenings he escorts curious tourists and locals on a route of his own devising that takes in major landmarks and less salubrious side streets – all illuminated by Karim’s lively pattern, which blends historical facts, tall tales and matter-of-fact explanations of the realities of homelessness.
Launched in August 2012 by three students on the in civil sector studies at Charles University in Prague, Pragulic’s mission is twofold: to provide employment to homeless people (it currently employs 10 guides) while raising awareness of the hardships they face.
Locals and visitors pay 250 Czech Republic koruna (£7) each and guides receive a flat fee of 353czk (£10) per hour plus tips; the rest is used to cover running costs as well as provide a range of support services including free haircuts, help to find employment and access to a psychologist.
Karim credits his work for Pragulic with turning his life around: “it’s better in terms of accommodation, lifestyle, in terms of the fact that I am, in brackets, a celebrity.” He now lives in sheltered housing and earns a living through guiding along with other awareness-raising activities put on by Pragulic.
Tereza Jurečkova, the project’s co-founder and director, recalls “the beginning was very hard. We didn’t have any money and we needed a lot of guidance because we didn’t have any experience.”
Initially, guides were recruited via the DivaDno theatre that worked with the homeless, and Nový Prostor, the Czech equivalent of the Big Issue. Now that Pragulic has become better known, those interested in guiding get in touch directly. Jurečkova and her team provide training which includes help with presentation skills and access to research materials.
Pragulic is now entirely financed by revenue raised through payment for its services. “Since basically the end of 2013 we became financially sustainable, and then profitable, organisation,” Jurečkova says. All profits are reinvested into the support services.
While all such organisations must somehow balance altruistic and commercial goals, Simon Teasdale, professor of public policy and organisations at Glasgow Caledonian University, observes that “there are other challenges around homeless people needing much higher levels of support than conventional employees.”
Teasdale is also sceptical about long-term impact: “It’s almost certainly not the neediest homeless people who’ll be running the tours but nobody’s really found a proper way to help those people who need it most.”
Does he regard the concept as a type of poverty tourism? “There is an exploitative aspect to it – wanting to see how poor people live,” said Teasdale, who has conducted extensive research into the role social enterprises can have in assisting the homeless. That said, he can see the positive worth in such initiatives. “It does, I suppose, make the homeless people feel more valued because people are interested in their lives and their stories.”
Karim confirms that he finds sharing his difficult experiences with an audience therapeutic. “It cleanses me so I don’t have negative thoughts or self-pity.” There are, however, uncomfortable moments: “Sometimes it’s like shock therapy because you never know what kind of people will come and what they’ll ask,” he says.
As well as the walking tours, Pragulic generates additional income from presentations in schools, team building events and the 24 Hour Homeless Experience. Billed on its website as creating “agents of change”, the latter involves spending a full day with one of its guides surviving on the streets. Participants hand over their wallets and clothes and are given an alternative outfit and 30czk – around 85p.
Sociologist Petr Vašát attended the experience and was accompanied by Karim, who received around 1,000czk (£28) of the total 3,600czk cost. The academic attempted begging on Prague’s tourist-crammed Na Příkopě street, went dumpster diving for food and slept in a night shelter.
While some may regard this kind of activity as voyeuristic, Petr found it gave him invaluable insight that even a three-year ethnographic research project he had conducted on the subject could not. “I was really surprised how the conditions and experiences are reflected in your physical state – a sort of embodiment,” Petr recalls.
With around 16,000 customers to date, Pragulic has been so successful that it has provided a blueprint for similar projects in two other Czech cities, České Budějovice and Olomouc. “We have local teams there who answer to us under our brand with our know-how,” Jurečkova said.
Similar initiatives with homeless guides exist in several European cities including Berlin, Barcelona and London. Although the essential concept remains the same, business models vary: in contrast to Pragulic’s flat fee, London’s Unseen Tours gives 60% of customer revenue directly to guides.