Journey: From Drug Addict to Tour Guide

Personal Insights into Homelessness

By Meghan Gambichler

“This is where I took drugs for the first time fifteen years ago,” Zuzka, 35, said quietly as we stood in the underground metro stop at Namesti Republiky. “At the time, I did not know that drugs were bad for you,” she added.

Zuzka, who requested that her last name not be used for this article, recounted the vivid memories that propelled her into a life of drugs and homelessness. “When I was a young girl, I was always a little different. And though my mother loved me, it was not the love I needed,” she said. As I peered closely at her, I could see that Zuzka was younger than her wrinkled and hardened face would lead an outsider to believe — her missing teeth and track-marked ridden arms were a telltale sign of a troubled past.

Add Caption here. Photo by Meghan Gambichler

Zuzka explains how she began using drugs. Photo courtesy of Pragulic.cz

Zuzka described the first time she took drugs, the common painkiller oxycontin, and how she enjoyed the high she received. By time she was 20, her addiction to escalated drugs such as heroin and krokadil, a derivative of morphine, controlled her and demanded her every last cent. When I asked Zuzka how she collected money to feed her addiction to drugs as she never had a career and was jobless and homeless at the time, she said, “I made the most money from pick-pocketing people. But I would also beg—some days I made 50 koruna ($2.51 USD), and others I made 500 ($25.08 USD).”

It was during my search for resources offered to the homeless Prague that I came across an innovative project by the name of Pragulic, which is how I came to know Zuzka. According to their website, Pragulic is a social enterprise that allows interested members of the public to know and experience the world of the homeless, striving to change common stereotypes regarding homelessness in Prague. Through this organization, people can sign up for tours led by homeless people who are trained to give these tours, and part of the proceeds from the tour goes directly to the tour guide.

 

Begging techniques

Photo by Meghan Gambichler

The homeless hide their faces when they ask for money. Photo by Meghan Gambichler

I was walking across Male Namestí when I was first introduced to the homeless culture here in Prague. It was only from the corner of my eye that I spotted him; a man on his knees with his face tucked closely into his chest, tightly gripping an empty coffee cup. I could not see his face and he did not move nor speak once, but I could gather that this man was in search of money or food. Unlike the homeless in New York, who often approach people on the street telling stories and begging for money, this man did not try to explain why he needed the money through any signage, nor did he ever say one word. This is what caught me off guard — his silence spoke volumes and I felt compelled to give him money because in all honesty, I did not feel pressured to do so as I usually feel in New York.

Currently, the number of homeless people in Prague, a city of 1.2 million, is about 4,000, according to Nadeje, a Czech nongovernmental organization that offers myriad homeless support services. However, as in every city, there are many homeless in Prague that are not accounted for—those who do not frequent halfway houses or make use of the services that are offered to them, such as going to the main train station on Mondays where ambulances will provide clean water and basic health check ups.

Homelessness is a relatively new concept in Prague. Before the Velvet Revolution, the communist dictatorship required all to work, even if that work was not profitable. With some very rare exceptions, a job was guaranteed. With the freedom that was awakened after 1989, there also came capitalism, unemployment and uncertainty in the workforce. However, there are many reasons for homelessness aside from being unable to find work—for Zuzka, it was because of her constant need to feed her addiction to drugs.

According to Zuzka, the begging rituals of homeless people in Prague who silently rest on their knees with their heads tucked in beg in this way because they believe that people are more likely to feel bad for them, thus allowing them to attain more money.  I recently became more familiar with these methods used by the homeless during my morning walks to class in Prague’s Old Town. On separate days, I found two different men taking turns using the same silver cane when asking for money. On Mondays and Wednesdays, a balding man in a blue jacket used it, and Tuesdays and Thursdays, a man with long hair and glasses took his turn. I was stunned, and in a way, impressed with their well organized operation.

 

Help and hope

Photo by Meghan Gambichler

Zuzka recounts her life of struggles. Photo by Meghan Gambichler

“I am clean and live in a small apartment with my partner who has a daughter. I make money giving tours and I bake and cook in an outreach program that works with young people who are at risk of drug addiction. It is still hard every day and I still struggle with health issues from the drugs, but I am getting better—and I am happy.”

In the Pragulic tour, Zuzka walked with me to the Old Town Square where she explained how the homeless used to gather at night to help one another out, often sharing resources in their camaraderie—something many outsiders would not have guessed. As we continued to walk through various locations such as the Old Town Square, Wencesclas Square, and small parks, Zuzka explained how each spot represented different aspects of how the homeless acquired drugs and money such as prostitution. However, Zuzka explained that even for those who want to get clean, sobriety and health comes at a substantial price, stating:

“At times, I tried my best to stop taking the drugs—I have been to rehab five times.  Here in Prague, the government offers to those who want to get clean a methadone substitute for a hefty price, which can help to aid us on the path to health. However, if the police find you with them, they often crush the pills or take them away—even though the substitutes are issued by the state in an effort to help.”

After the tour with Zuzka, I reached out to representatives at Nadeje, which means hope in English. According to the Nadeje annual report, 2,735 people use Nadeje’s services. These services become crucial during the harsh winters in Prague when one can easily become ill and struggle to survive. The Czech government provides services, financial support and one new pair of shoes each month for the homeless, showing that the country is not immune to the plight of the homeless.

“Right now,” explained Zuzka, “I am clean and live in an small apartment with my partner who has a daughter. I make money giving tours and I bake and cook in an outreach program that works with young people who are at risk of drug addiction. It is still hard every day and I still struggle with health issues from the drugs, but I am getting better—and I am happy.”

 

Pragulic
Prices:
Adult: 250 Koruna ($12.54 USD)
Student: 180 Koruna ($9.03USD)
Family: 700 Koruna ($35.10 USD)
Tours:
120-180 minutes. Tours per day vary (usually 2-4 tours per day with various guides depending on interest).

 

Meghan Gambichler is in the NYU Steinhardt Class of 2015. Her hometown is Roseland, New Jersey.

 

 

This article was adapted from an assignment for the travel writing class at New York University in Prague.

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Categories: Culture, Spring 2014 Issue Number 2

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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