A cold reality that will affect 1,200 people during this holiday season in Krakow is homelessness. The winter months are especially trying for the homeless owing to the severe weather conditions. For some, the combination of alcohol consumption and lack of shelter are lethal, and every year there are casualties.
The homeless find shelter where it is warm and dry and there is a chance of a meal. First, the basic needs have to be met before a larger goal can be considered. The homeless weave in and out of the city, namelessly sometimes, holding outstretched hands or empty cups for alms. Yearly, approximately 2,000 homeless people pass through Krakow.
Many homeless people wind up in Krakow because the city offers a wide range of services aimed at helping the down-and-out. “The homeless are offered good services and they know it- they come here to seek refuge,” says Marta Chechelska of the Miejski osrodek pomocy spolecznej (MOPS, or City Social Welfare Centre).
“Many of the homeless and those that exist outside of the system know that they will receive help with no questions asked. The goal is to get these people off the streets, to help them and support them and to establish a form of ongoing contact in the long term. In the winter months this assistance takes the form of beds, meals, bathhouses, and information.”
The resources, however, only get to the neediest through the hard work of a handful of individuals. For anyone who has lived in America, the term “social worker” is common, and “streetworkers” are Krakow’s equivalent. They showed up on the scene just three years ago and since then have been working for the benefit of the homeless.
They go out into the street and make contact, bringing help and most of all information. They come equipped with pamphlets that explain who they are and what they do, which also include the addresses of shelters, soup kitchens, bathhouses, places to obtain clothing, and housing. They offer professional help for those with dependants or those that have been the victims of violence and need medical help.
In Krakow, there are eight locations where one can find a warm meal during dinner hours, such as ul. Skawinska 6, whereas on Sundays the only place serving meals is on ul. Lokietka. In addition, three locations distribute non-perishable foodstuffs, as well as new or used clothing. The medical centre for homeless people can be found on ul. Olszalska 5.
Streetworkers cooperate with the straz miejska (city guard), and together they conduct trainings with railroad employees, exchanging information and discussing appropriate approaches to dealing with homeless people at railway stations. Last year, 200 employees of the straz miejska participated in such trainings. From November until March they jointly conduct patrols late into the evening hours, seeking out people not in shelters.
Streetworkers are the first to arrive when someone reports a homeless person. In the event that a person does not want help or does not want to spend the night in a shelter, street workers pass on information on where they can get help in case they were to change their mind. “When they don’t want help we are not allowed to help,” says Iwona, one of the street workers, “but mostly we have positive reactions.” There have been a total of 45 such interventions in the past year.
There are approximately 800 beds combined for men and women in Krakow, and no one is turned away even in the most drastic of situations. In the case that someone shows up looking for shelter and is heavily under the influence of alcohol the police is informed. In these cases they will not spend the night under the naked sky, but not in a shelter either.
Helping the homeless is not only a holiday project that melts like the winter snow, but an ongoing endeavour to help people become a part of functioning society. It’s not just about warm meals and beds but about meetings and support groups and helping those neglected by society to feel human. This kind of help is most effective when contact is ongoing and people can receive support and motivation on a regular basis.
With the holidays approaching, alms for the poor gains new momentum, but throwing money into a cup or putting a few grosze in someone’s hand does not solve the problem. In fact, it deepens it as it supports homelessness by allowing those begging on the streets to get by. “Giving alms to the poor should be done wisely,” says Chechelska. “We should give to organisations we know and trust. That way we can know how that money is used. Giving money [directly to the homeless] does not motivate or give incentive to stay off of the street, it supports the homeless status.”
Cracovians have learned to give wisely regardless of their penny-pinching stereotype. Just a few years ago Cracovians used to give freely but because of the push to avoid giving on the street there has been a big change. On the one hand, “when there is a drive or a project that needs certain things we have never been disappointed, help always comes,” Chechelska continues. “They help all year, there is a difference around the holidays because there are different things that are needed but they help all year round.”
For MOPS, yearlong help takes the form of regular consultations with professionals on topics such as addiction or depression, support groups, employment and temporary housing on top of addressing basic needs. MOPS offers transition housing with 11 spaces, which have only been open since last year. Those who need a temporary home can reside in these locations while they begin working to support themselves. But the streetworkers’ most important tasks are often carried out away from the office and in the streets and alleyways of Krakow, where they offer immediate assistance to those who need it.
For those eager to help, the best way to throw in a wise two grosze is to contact the MOPS centre. They can advise anyone who wants to volunteer and tell them how. They know what the needs are and what materials are needed so that anyone who wants to get involved can do so through donations of either goods or services.
The MOPS office serves not only as an office but also as a consultation place. They are open on weekday afternoons in shifts, on Mondays from 1-3 pm, Tuesdays and Wednesdays 1:30 to 5:30 and morning hours on Thursdays from 9:30-11:30. The MOPS office in Krakow is located at ul. Felicjanek 15 and they can be reached at (12) 429 3041.