Petr Josek/REUTERS
Horses enjoy water as they cool off at the Old Town Square in central Prague August 20.

Empowering Prague's homeless by hiring them as tour guides

The Pragulic service's guides share their experiences living on the streets of Prague with tourists – and share in profits from the tours with the sevice's founders, three graduate students.

Prague’s main train station marks the site where Honza H. got his start as a man without a home in 1998. He points out that “every second bench is occupied by a homeless person.”

But now it is also the starting point of his new job. Along with eight others, he is sharing his story as a tour guide for Pragulic, a new Prague-based tourist service offering walks around the city guided by homeless people.

Deriving its name from the combination of Prague and the Czech word for streets, the service invites tourists to “Discover Prague in a different way." It was founded by graduate students Katarina Chalupkova, Tereza Jureckova, and Ondrej Klugl, who conceived the idea for the Social Impact Awards, a program to encourage students in Austria, the Czech Republic, and Romania to solve societal problems through entrepreneurship.  The project won the people’s vote in the 2012 Awards. 

“The tours are all based on the personal experience of the guides,” says Ms. Jureckova. “Throughout the tours they’re sharing their personal stories, along with sharing sites.”

Pragulic’s nine tours, including two night walks, have been designed by the guides themselves, all of whom are formerly homeless. “It’s still easy for them to return to homelessness, so we are trying to help prevent it,” says Jureckova.

One guide, Karim, who is now close to 40 and has been on and off the streets since he was around 17, takes tourists through the city’s famous Old Town Square and onto its heavily trodden Charles Bridge. Having spent most of his time in the city center as a prostitute, he shares some of its history along with his own.

Another guide, Karel, spent about a year in a shelter after being robbed of all his belongings upon returning to the Czech Republic after 10 years working abroad. He takes his groups to Prague’s picturesque Vysehrad, the area of the city where he grew up. Beginning the tour with a look at the Vysehrad cemetery, the final resting place of many of the country’s most renowned, and the neo-gothic church of St. Peter and Paul, he then “focuses on real life” says Jureckova, visiting some of his favorite places, including a secondhand shop, a restaurant, and one of the Czech Republic’s largest shelters, set up by the charity Nadeje, which translates to hope.

Including offerings in London, Melbourne, Utrecht, San Francisco, Belgium, and New Delhi, tours led by the homeless, former homeless or street kids are the evolution of slum tourism or “poorism” as it’s often referred to, which offers tourists a first-hand look at poverty-stricken places. One of the first slum tours, started in 1992, brings tourists inside the favelas of Rio. 

Offering their guides 50 percent of the profits from each tour, Pragulic aims to help them improve their situation through both income and an opportunity to build confidence. Along with a desire to positively affect public perceptions of the homeless, the group also hopes to play a part in the progression of social business in the Czech Republic. “It’s growing, but it’s still something new here,” says Jureckova.

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