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Armenia: Rising Income Gap Leaves Homeless Out In Cold

Emil Danielyan

Despite nearly a decade of economic growth, including a double-digit rate last year, living standards have not improved in Armenia. Instead, a highly uneven distribution of wealth has widened the gap between the rich and poor. Poverty still affects about half of the country's population. Its most extreme manifestation, homelessness, was virtually nonexistent in the past but can now be seen on the streets of Yerevan.

Yerevan, 7 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For a man who has been homeless for almost 15 years, Vartan is remarkably health-conscious. Every morning he jogs in a park and eats two raw eggs afterward.

That, says the 41-year-old university graduate, is American movie icon Arnold Schwarzenegger's recipe for fitness and good health: "I haven't taken any medicine for 15 years. No drugs at all."

This statement seems more of a rebuke to Armenia's government than bravado. Vartan's sole contact with the government is periodical encounters with police officers who he says don't like to see him and his friends living on the street: "I sold my apartment, divorced my wife, and now live on the street. But they must somehow take care of me. Instead they come and beat me up. We are not their slaves, are we?"

Long-term homelessness has dimmed the sense of time for Vartan's Ukrainian-born girlfriend, Tatyana. She is not sure how old she is. "I must be at least 46," Tatyana says, smiling.

The couple had accommodation only last winter when they rented a room with proceeds from the collection of empty bottles and scrap metal. Their usual "workplace" is the area around a small agricultural market in Yerevan's northern Arabkir District. Traders there give them fruit, vegetables, and even meat.

Homeless people like Vartan and Tatyana form the most underprivileged class of Armenians still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet command economy. Their number may not be large given the scale of poverty in the country. But it seems to have increased in recent years despite higher economic growth, which has seemingly done more to increase income disparities than to reduce poverty.

Eleonora Manandian is the chairwoman of New Armenia. The youth organization engages in social work mainly by helping to get children begging in the streets back to school. She warns that prolonged poverty is eroding Armenians' traditionally strong family bonds -- ties that have helped cushion post-Soviet hardship: "You may not see many homeless people on the streets. But the number of marginalized people keeps growing because social bonds are increasingly weakening. That is, people stop feeling [like] citizens -- full-fledged members of the society. And there will come a moment when they find themselves outside that society."

The social polarization is particularly eye-catching in Yerevan. Its glitzy center filled with restaurants and luxury cars increasingly contrasts with its rundown suburbs. Real estate prices downtown have skyrocketed since 2001, fueling a housing construction boom -- another indication of increased wealth.

Yet enormous contrasts can be found even here. Alla, a 47-year-old single woman, has lived in the dry fountain at a public park flanked by apartment blocks for the past four years. She broke a hip joint last winter and can hardly walk: "How do you think I manage to get by? It's neighbors that support me. They bring me water and food. They are nice to me."

Alla lost most of her relatives in a catastrophic 1988 earthquake in northern Armenian. She says not a single government official has ever visited or offered her any assistance.

In fact, neither Armenia's Ministry of Social Affairs nor any other government agency has programs specifically for the country's homeless.

According to government statistics, the proportion of the population living below the official poverty line declined from almost 50 percent to 43 percent last year due to an almost 14 percent surge in Armenia's Gross Domestic Product. The government says the robust growth continued into the first half of this year.

However, little suggests that it has improved the lot of the 13 percent of Armenians officially considered to be living in "extreme poverty." It is still not clear how they might benefit from a government poverty-reduction program launched a year ago with the blessing of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The program seeks to bring the poverty rate to 19 percent by 2015 through job creation and increased public spending.

The government plans to spend $6 million in 2006 to provide families lacking adequate housing with new homes. Sources in the Western donor community say the modest scheme has been recently narrowed to only Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan.

This is bad news for thousands of people huddling in former factory hostels that lack basic amenities, such as running water and toilets. Many of them fit into the Western definition of homelessness.

This is particularly true for the dozens of poor families squatting in a ramshackle buildings in the southern outskirts of Yerevan. Once dotted with big factories, the area is now an industrial graveyard. Last year, people started moving into the three-story building, which once housed a factory school.

Armenuhi Boyajian, a single mother, moved in with her four children this summer. The oldest of her kids, a 15-year-old boy, dropped out of school three years ago and is now the family's main bread-winner due to his mother's poor health. Nor are his three sisters attending school due to their failure to submit official health certificates. Lying in bed and grimacing in pain, Boyajian says she can't afford to pay for the certificates: "They want 3,000 drams ($6) for that. When I tell them that I'm a single mother they say that it mattered only in Communist times."

Susanna Boyakhchian, a hefty middle-aged woman, is slowly repairing the building's former toilet and is preparing to move in with her disabled son and his wife. They had owned a decent apartment that was confiscated in the late 1990s when he was imprisoned for a minor crime that his mother says he never committed.

The family currently rents a room in a kindergarten. Boyakhchian, who sells second-hand clothing in a market, seethes with anger when asked what her government can do for them: "I don't expect anything from this state because this state has ruined my life. I have been left on the street because of this state."

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