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Analysis & Opinion
09.03.11 Russia’s Street Dwellers
By Svetlana Kononova

The Mayor of the Siberian city of Chita Anatoly Michalev has suggested shooting the homeless in order to solve problems associated with them. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a license to shoot the homeless, and now there are no other ways to get rid of them,” he said, adding that vagrancy should be made into a criminal offence again, as it was in the Soviet Union. Although the mayor’s press office later apologized for the statement, it nonetheless spurred a heated debate.

There are no official statistics as to how many people are homeless in Russia. Experts estimate that this figure is over 4.5 million and growing every year. In Russia a homeless person is called a “BOMZh” – an abbreviation of “without a certain place of residence.” Most homeless people are stereotyped as alcoholics with a criminal past, who chose this marginal lifestyle of their own free will.

Ten or 15 years ago, this stereotype may have been true to life, but since then the portrait of the average homeless person has evolved, say independent experts from NGOs which have many years of practical experience in this field. “There are several alarming trends. Firstly, the number of homeless families has grown. Not all of these people already live on the streets, but they and their small children might be evicted at any time. Secondly, the homeless have become younger. The average age of homeless people in Russia is 25 to 40 years old – this means we can say that homeless children have grown up and become homeless adults,” said Victoria Ryzkova, a spokesperson for the St. Petersburg-based NGO Nochlezhka (Night Shelter), which focuses on the social and psychological rehabilitation of the homeless and tries to defend their rights.

Nochlezhka’s statistics also show that the number of homeless women is growing. While in the early 2000s only ten percent of the homeless were women, the share of homeless females has risen to 30 percent and continues to grow. Moreover, following the global economic crisis the number of people forced to live on the streets because they lost their jobs has also increased. Most of the homeless in Russia don’t have any income and don’t have any documents that would allow them to get a job. “Every second homeless person lives on the streets because of family problems, including physical and psychological abuse. One in five lost their property because they were defrauded by ‘black realtors’,” Ryzkova said.

Elena Kovalenko, a social policy expert at the Institute for Urban Economics, said that there are also many “hidden homeless people” in Russia, meaning people who do not have registration and property rights and might be thrown out of where they live any time. “There are several risk groups: lonely elderly people, women who suffer from domestic violence, teenagers and young people who grew up in orphanages and migrants, both foreigners and Russians who moved to a different region to find a job,” she said. “I believe there are two main reasons why people in Russia become homeless: bad socio-economic conditions in the provinces and a crisis in the family. Homelessness is rooted in the social and economic policies of the state. The situation in Moscow, where 90 percent of the homeless are people who moved there from other Russian regions or from the CIS to find a job, clearly illustrates this.”

Elizaveta Glinka, who goes by the name of Doctor Liza, a philanthropist, palliative care doctor and the CEO at the Moscow-based Spravedlivaya Pomosh (Just Help) Foundation, which cares for the homeless, wrote in her blog: “A new category of homeless are people who took out bank loans. They rent their apartments out to repay the loan and move to Moscow to look for jobs. They can’t find a job and spend their nights at railway stations. Even if they don’t get beaten senseless, frostbite gets their hands and legs.”

The ranks of the homeless amass new “recruits” every year. Workers of Nochlezhka register up to 1,000 new street dwellers who call for aid every year. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Experts say that the number of homeless in St. Petersburg alone is estimated at dozens or even hundreds of thousands. However, there are only 13 shelters in the city, which can accommodate no more than 281 people in total per night. The situation in Moscow is similar, while most middle-sized and small towns don’t have shelters at all.

Some charities focus on helping homeless adults, others work with street children. “There are four groups of street children in Russia. The first are kids from abusive, vulnerable families. Then there are children from orphanages. The third group has homeless parents and has been living on the streets since early childhood. The last are teenagers from ‘more or less normal’ families who leave home because of drug addiction or conflicts with relatives,” Kovalenko said.

“The way authorities deal with street children is the following: they are taken to a police station, given a health check at a hospital, and returned to their family or orphanage. Every link in this chain is responsible for passing a child to the next link, but not for providing any help. Nobody is interested in why the child ran away from home or an orphanage. Therefore, these children escape again and avoid any contact with the social services in future. They thus don’t trust any state and social institutions when they become adults. On the other hand, governmental agencies are not interested in homeless adults. So grown street children can’t get a passport or medical help.” Volunteers who work with the homeless in Russia say that grown street children have all the problems associated with homelessness, from alcohol and drug addiction to anti-social behavior. They most often end up in prison.

At present only NGOs provide help to the homeless in Russia. But what can they do? They treat the symptoms but not the causes of the illness. They provide people who live on the streets with food, clothes, a night’s shelter, psychological and legal assistance, but they can’t influence the state policy that aggravates the problem of homelessness. “The main problem is that registration in Russia is more important than the human rights warranted by the Constitution. If a person has a registration stamp in their passport, all doors are open. But if a person does not have this stamp, he or she become invisible to society,” said Zoya Solovyeva, the head of Nochlezhka. “Russia doesn’t have any federal policy and national system of helping the homeless. There is no distinct housing policy or regulation of the rental market. But there is discrimination on the job market, the housing market and everyday grassroots discrimination, including a lack of free washhouses and public toilets.”

Experts believe that a state policy should focus on measures to prevent homelessness and rehabilitation services, but it’s also important to change public opinion. “As long as society ignores the homeless and believes that they are unworthy of access to medical and social help, the situation will not change. Moreover, every Russian is under threat of being unable to exercise their rights if they lose their registration and home,” Kovalenko said.
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