Letters from Slovakia – a Homeless Camp Goes Permaculture

Already doing what it can to operate along sustainable lines, a homeless camp in Slovakia is looking for a permaculture makeover and evolution.

Geoff-Lawton-Online

In little more than eight years, more than 800 homeless people have come and gone through this little site. For some it was temporary salvation, giving them a roof over their heads just when they needed it most, for others it meant even more — redirecting their life from its downward, sometimes criminal trajectory, to give them a sense of self-worth, a new skill-set and positive purpose.


The sign reads: Public Camp — This public camp was founded with support
of willing people. It is meant for people without shelter, and is located on
private property. Everyone who comes with good intentions is welcome.


Big-hearted Daniel Diškanec

Background

When I first visited the camp, in late-Winter, I thought I was going to write an article for translation for local papers. It was to be a bid to help stop the site from being closed down by the local authorities. I had previously heard about the site and learned that the project was nearing the end of a five-year extension for permission to exist, and that, as the end-of-March deadline was approaching, the ‘vibes’ from the city were not too positive. Visions of having to stand in the path of bulldozers came to mind, so I thought I’d endeavour to help avoid such a scenario entirely by shedding a little light on what the project is achieving.


These children, who share this room with their father, have food, shelter,
a community around them, and practical learning experiences
to give them a better start in life

Sited in Priekopa, nestled in mountainous north-central Slovakia, the site’s visionary, Daniel Diškanec, has met both support and opposition over the years. Before construction of the first buildings even began neighbours were fearful that a new camp full of homeless people would become both an eyesore and a source of problems with theft, vandalism, drunkenness and the like. It didn’t. As the project got underway and established, these fears proved unfounded, but despite initial, rather premature complaints from neighbours subsiding, the minds of local authorities still seemed to retain echoes of these concerns. Daniel doesn’t enforce a lot of rules on his wards, but the no-alcohol/no-drug policy is strictly enforced — being grounds for instant eviction.


One of the nine little two-story chalets

There are currently nine tiny, two-story accommodation buildings on site, housing around 50 people, including Daniel, his wife and two daughters. One of the buildings is used as a bakery, yet demand for housing is so high that people live there also. A central wood stove cleverly and efficiently heats all nine buildings, venting hot air under the snow-covered ground to each.

The site has a small solar and wind installation to reduce its dependence on grid electricity — currently generating about 20% of their consumption.

Daniel seems to be a master of getting the most out little, as far as money goes. He bought silicon cell seconds from Ebay, for example, and made the solar panels himself by sandwiching them between old panes of window glass. Being an electrician by trade helps here.

Daniel showed me a design for a micro-hydro setup he wanted to build — one that, once complete, would generate 80% of present usage. Costing €10,000 off the shelf, Daniel said he and his helpers could do 95% of the work themselves, getting the total build cost down to as little as €2,000. Given he pays €4,000 per year for power at the moment (after subtracting the 20% he’s currently generating), it means this system would pay for itself rather promptly.

A couple of long term residents


Let’s call them Mike and Steve. Both have been in residence for seven years now. Mike, at left, was a bus driver. Steve was an electrician. Steve’s story was particularly interesting, but having had an operation for throat cancer he had to tell us the tale through an electro-larynx. He wound up at the camp not long after getting out of hospital from his operation. He’d gone ‘home’ at first, but discovered his wife had rather hastily decided he was going to die and had sold his house and possessions out from under him and disappeared. The irony was that, since he was self-employed, he’d put his possessions in his wife’s name so as to ‘protect’ them….

Both Mike and Steve actively help Daniel with building, electrical and other site development tasks and maintenance. The room might be small, but the whole site is their home.

The Project Sighs with Relief

My second visit coincided with that of a representative of local government. The word was that the project’s needed extension was granted — it was nothing to do with me, as I hadn’t penned a word yet. It seems they had come to realise that local residents had nothing to complain about. This was great news, not only that the community would retain a roof over their heads, but that potential funding waiting in the wings could now come forward. You see, a local businessman had pledged a few thousand Euros, but, understandably, didn’t want to hand it over until he knew the site was to continue.


A young mother and her little boy share a room

Most new arrivals hear about the site by word of mouth. Daniel said he gets more requests for help than he can handle, turning away around ten people per week. In addition to being homeless, almost half the residents at the moment are mentally handicapped. Where would these have lived, if not here?

Daniel Hears About Permaculture

From what I heard about the project, before even sighting it, I felt it a perfect place to introduce permaculture design concepts. Imagine the potential of transforming a homeless camp, full of people struggling with limited prospects and horizons, into a site with purpose — a demonstration site of permaculture potential, right here in Central Europe. With globalisation steadily disintegrating, many in Slovakia, and former eastern bloc countries like it, are realising that the western dream they’ve been chasing since the fall of the USSR has been just a mirage, and one that caused them to lose much of their former, more localised, resilience, and at the worst possible juncture in history — the era of energy descent. Valuable skills that have been developed and handed down over centuries have been passed up, regarded as obsolete by a new generation hell-bent on moving off the land and getting rich quick. Now it needs to come full circle, and sites like this could lead the way in taking the past and adapting it to forge a better future.

With the language barrier making my desire to share ideas with Daniel a little tricky, I had to find another avenue to do so. After inspiring a Slovak friend, Juraj (a fellow who also happens to be a little philanthropically minded) with the need and potential of permaculture, he became the conduit I needed to infuse some permaculture excitement into Daniel.

Sepp Holzer recently released a Czech version of his new book, Permaculture. Czech is understood by almost all Slovaks, being very similar, so when Juraj bought himself a copy, he purchased one extra; a gift to Daniel.


The ribbon-wrapped book sits on Daniel’s desk

The Project Begins a New Evolution

I see the project’s 6000 square metre site as a blank canvas, needing some permaculture brush-strokes. There’s a lot of potential here, and Daniel isn’t slow to see it.

Up until now, over the snow-free months, the site has produced potatoes and other vegetables. Cabbages are turned into the long-lasting sauerkraut. In addition to its human residents, the project has two cows, a couple of ponies, five chickens, and a few dogs and cats. The cows provide milk and cheese, and the site returns hay to them. The chickens are apparently not very good at making other chickens, but they do provide eggs. Daniel has to buy wheat in, but residents use it to make their own bread in their little bakery.

With Daniel now positively fizzing with enthusiasm to make the land more productive and make his homeless camp more diverse and self-reliant, the next step is to get a good design laid out. Juraj managed to make contact with a couple of permaculture consultants, so I delayed publishing this post so I could end on this positive consultancy note.


Peter Mravik talks to Daniel

The day came: two consultants were to come, but unfortunately one was a no-show. Peter, above, arrived and shared some ideas. Being from the warmer south of Slovakia, he wasn’t super-confident to be specific for this region. He wanted to bring more people along to let more minds pool their mental resources to produce a better design. Having wanted to see the site get some help for a while now, I regardless urged a mini brainstorm on the day, to at least give Daniel some pointers on things he can do right now.


We put pen to paper and outlined a few ideas

We spoke about his heavy clay soil and how to avoid the common pitfalls with it. We urged the need for greater diversity, and the potential placement of biomass elements — food forests and chicken tractors, raised beds and berry bushes….

I’m hopeful that Peter and a few more will return with more concrete ideas for rapid development of the site. In the meantime, Geoff Lawton has kindly suggested to use this site as a remote consultancy design challenge for interns currently learning at the PRI’s Zaytuna Farm. As I type, the interns are beginning the last day of their internship, so I’m racing across the keyboard to spit this out in time to incentivise them into action. Should they have time to create a design, I’ll put it up in a subsequent post.

Other cold-temperate climate permaculture experts are invited to help — please contact me on editor (at) permaculturenews.org

Interview with Daniel Diškanec

CM: What motivated you to start the project?

DD: We managed to start the project only on our second attempt. The first one wasn‘t successful, when we wanted to build a few cabins on a rented dump. We promised to the owner that we would rehabilitate the land gradually — pulling out bushes, bringing the land under cultivation, keeping goats, etc. This idea wasn’t approved by the city council because the site was too close to the main road and the cemetery. The second attempt was made when I inherited some land. My motivation was to help not only myself — at that time I was unemployed — but also others. I believe the best way how to be rich is to hand out/share the little you have so it can be multiplied. It’s a paradox that works. There is a lot of poverty because people don’t share their wealth, so they lose it or don’t multiply it.

CM: What are the ultimate aims of the project?

DD: There are no ultimate aims since everything is only part of a process which never ends. Without setting the goals we can get better results because there are no expectations. There are people who have fallen off the edge of the society, who often don’t expect any results — perhaps they only hope to live in relative peace. However, if there was something we were aiming for, that would be human helpfulness and solidarity. It might be the willingness to donate something, which people don’t need but often cling to anyway and therefore limit themselves. I speak about unused lands and real estates. So the most important aim could be to provide something you don’t need. If we managed to break this barrier of spiritual poverty, then material poverty doesn’t have a possibility to survive.

CM: Who’s land is the project sitting on, and much land is it?

The land, on which the camp is located, has 6,000 m2, however I look after about 4-5 hectares of land, which was unused before. We use this land mostly for growing hay, which is then used for feeding our farm animals.

CM: How is the project financed? Please give some financial particulars about running costs, any income from residents, income from donors, and any income from products you might produce on the property.

DD: We get the biggest income from publishing the magazine "Space for life", which we’ve published since the beginning of the camp’s existence. In the beginning of the project development we covered the construction of the camp from this income. Today the income from this source is much smaller, therefore the current profits can only cover the running costs of the camp. From time to time a donor comes to the camp and covers the costs of a certain item, but we usually rely on our own activities. The cost of electricity and water are covered by inhabitants of the camp, which is Euro 24/month. We also work on repairs of the equipment and vehicles we use for getting the wood from inaccessible locations, mowing the grass and lots of other things. All these activities mean money saved in regards to financing the running of the camp.

CM: How long do people generally stay? And where do they typically go afterwards?

DD: Many people come and go, and many young people left abroad. Some of them stay, some of them are permanent inhabitants of the camp. The number of mentally handicapped people has been increased recently, as well as pensioners, women and children, for which the camp wasn’t initially planned to accommodate. We adjust to the situation we have….

CM: Please list what items are produced on the property, to give us an idea of the level of self-sufficiency you’ve attained to date.

DD: We mostly focus on cheap accommodation, but besides growing vegetables we also grow potatoes, make hay, and produce our own milk and dairy products.

CM: What plans and/or desires do you have for the future to increase your level of sustainable self-sufficiency?

DD: We would like to try growing crops based on permaculture principles, to change our land to a permaculture garden.

CM: Have you seen any lives turned around through their exposure to your project? Can you give some brief histories on a few?

DD: Changes of coming and going inhabitants don’t need to be visible or measurable by results. Usually, the camp’s environment changes people who have come from a children’s home or prison to make them better people. Many inhabitants have changed their behaviour and are better adjusted. People learn that it is better not to lie and steal, but to help each other instead. They realise it’s then easier to live. There was a man here who had been sentenced seven times for stealing, but at our place he was an example of honesty and unselfishness. Another one had murdered his own mother — he came to the camp after serving his sentence. At our place he was an example of how to solve difficult situations and problems with peace.

CM: What obstacles do you face to continue?

DD: All obstacles can be managed except for lack of willingness, lack of interest and understanding. So far this has been the biggest problem to deal with for us.

CM: Why do you think the authorities have not been positively-minded about the project?

DD: Supposedly the situation has changed and the city is going to support our project. This has been declared by the city mayor in the media. Only time will tell if it’s really going to be like that. We believe yes.

CM: Do you think the authorities realise that we, as a nation, and as a world, are facing an urgent energy crisis, which can make more self-sufficient projects like yours become effective templates to learn from and emulate as we navigate our societies into a future of ultra-expensive oil?

DD: There is a need to learn how to live in continuity with nature, to learn how to create things, not consume so much. At the moment a very small percentage of men consume vast amounts of resources, the other, the bigger portion, goes without. This disproportion creates tension which separates people from each other and limits them. The people with enough resources have fear, that their benefits will be taken from them, because they don’t belong to them by right. This fear forces them to desire more and to secure their properties better. But there are enough resources in the world for every one.

CM: What do you think about the idea of your project becoming a permaculture demonstration site? Do you think your typical resident will appreciate the value of gaining increased skills in sustainable food production, natural building techniques, low-carbon energy systems, etc.?

DD: We would like to implement and run this project. It is a perspective and methods for how people can survive for generations without detriment. We would like young people and students to join this project as well as to use the experience of the older generation. We would like to initiate a countrywide discussion about this topic and to provide land for those who are interested. Already now we have enough land and hopefully we will get even more. We would like to share and spread this idea with other towns and villages also. I think it would be very interesting to link this project with cheap accommodation, in this respect we could find support and participation from many young people.

CM: Do you ever regret beginning this project? And what lessons have you learned along the way? What would you tell someone in another city and/or country who was considering helping the people around them in a similar way as you have been?

DD: I definitely do not regret my efforts. I have become a rich man in the true sense of the word. I would recommend this also to other people – to untie from yourself and your family, and help people who really need it. Many people live unhappy lives just because they don’t understand this fact. Unhappy people don’t create, they limit themselves and others too. Nobody can be happy if he/she sees unhappiness around. Not understanding this is a limiting factor and stops good projects from getting implemented.

CM: What are the horses for?

DD: From time to time we use the draught pony for bringing the wood closer, otherwise the children from the camp and from the neighbourhood use the pony for riding. In this way we partially reduce the prejudices of the society against the camp inhabitants.

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5 thoughts on “Letters from Slovakia – a Homeless Camp Goes Permaculture

  1. Thanks for the great story Craig. The interview at the end was particularly insightful into how this gentleman sees the world.

    I am not sure if you are insinuating whether or not the USSR retained community and local resilience as a concious choice, or whether that was merely a byproduct of not being so – as E. F. Schumacher would put it – successful. ‘Successful’ in this sense referring to the generation of material wealth (certainly the case in contemporary econmic systems), or whatever the primary objective or metric was. Local resilience tracks quite nicely with the scale of operations (often an expression of the amount of surplus energy, and by association money) and certainly the was the pursuit of scale in many activities by former USSR authorities.

    Not having been to this part of the world I am seeking insight from you here and what your interpretations of this situation would be.

    Again, thanks. I should really be getting back to work. =)

  2. such an amazing story – wish i could have popped in for a visit when i was in slovakia recently. hope to see similar projects starting up and would love the chance to be involved in something similar. permaculture ideas will open up many more possibilities as well. a really great article – thanks!

  3. That’s an amazing way to better society. Imagine if cities across the globe actively helped the dispossessed in such a fashion? Providing the disadvantaged housing, empowering them with life skills and a sustainable lifestyle pushes poverty ever closer to the grave.

  4. Thanks for your comments all.

    Stephen, in regards to resilience, note the article I linked to in that particular sentence. It explains relatively fully my observations on how this part of the world has changed over the years. If you have thoughts/questions beyond what I’ve included in that article, let me know.

  5. I’m sure the sheltering roofs of your houses play a vital part for the mental helth of your residents, and for the success of your whole project: http://vasarhelyi.eu/books/A_pattern_language_book/apl117/apl117.htm

    For more patterns to release tensions of interconnections in the human mind, please visit this site: http://vasarhelyi.eu/books/A_pattern_language_book/apl.htm

    One important pattern I can suggest is House Cluster: http://vasarhelyi.eu/books/A_pattern_language_book/apl37/apl37.htm

    I see you have already startde adding some natural geometry on your houses, and this is really important for maintaining a good mental balance of the human mind. To learn more about natural geometry, which kind of geometry that reveals in nature through morphogenesis, the levels of scale needed to reflex natural complexity to avoid the subcounches to enter a stage of alarm and anxiety and so on, you can learn more about in Nikos A. Salingaros last book, Twelve Lectures of Architecture: http://www.bod.de/index.php?id=296&objk_id=354912

    Unfortunately modernism lacks all kinds of natural patterns and geometry, something which generates crime and mental emptiness. I’m happy to see you are truly on the right track!

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