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Russia: Art Therapy Reaches Out To Moscow Homeless

The Caritas exhibition included the works of about 30 homeless men (Courtesy Photo) MOSCOW -- In a brightly lit room in what used to be a kindergarten, 12 men sit around a table strewn with tubes of oil-based paint. Around the room are dozens of paintings depicting scenes that include rainbows and wooden houses surrounded by fruit trees, endless gray roads disappearing into the horizon, or a mirror lying cracked on the ground.

The men are thin, and a number of them are missing some or all of their teeth. One man at the back of the room has fallen asleep on the blank piece of paper in front of him.

By day, they wander the streets in search of food, warmth, and temporary shelter. They are part of the capital's burgeoning homeless population, which can be found in groups huddled together on park benches, or alone riding metro trains for hours on end to stave off the cold.

But three afternoons a week, this tiny segment of the Russian capital's wretched ranks is offered the chance to attend art classes, where they paint, chat, and gulp down cups of tea and jam sandwiches.

Their works are part of an exhibition of paintings in a downtown Moscow bookshop to highlight the plight of some of the city's most vulnerable inhabitants.

Vladimir, who declines to give his last name, is telling his story. He has been homeless for almost 10 years. When his mother died in central Russia, his aunt threw him out of the house. He swept yards for a time, before drifting to the capital to try to find work.

Art Therapy

Now, he considers himself one of the lucky ones. He has been granted one of the highly sought-after beds at the state-run Marfino Hostel, where these art classes are held. It's hardly luxury: the men sleep four to a small room in bunks, and are only allowed inside between 6.00 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., when they are turned out onto the street again. Every month they must produce a doctor's certificate to prove they don't have tuberculosis or head lice.

"If I have free time, I'd rather be here than on the street, especially now that it's winter," Vladimir says. "It's a good way to pass the time, it's warm, and you're not getting drunk. The painting really inspires me; the most important thing is that it calms my nerves, frankly speaking."

The classes are the brainchild of Maria Khokhlova, a psychologist, who has been coordinating support groups for homeless people in Moscow for six years. She works for Caritas, a Catholic charity that helps the homeless in cities all over the world.

"When a lot of homeless men get together, they can be aggressive. They have suffered a lot, they are angry. And that's hard to deal with," Khokhlova says. "And we realized that apart from just talking, we needed to think of something for them to do -- with their hands. So that their emotions could be calmed through using their hands."

Most big cities around the world have problems with homelessness. People from towns and rural areas are drawn to the cities by the prospect of higher wages and an improved quality of life. But often they end up on the streets. Moscow's homeless population, however, fares particularly badly: every day they face police brutality, the indifference of most Muscovites and, for four or five months of the year, harsh winters where temperatures can plummet below 20 degrees.

Expanding Ranks

There are thought to be as many as 100,000 homeless people in Moscow, a figure that’s rising every year, homeless charities say. But who are Moscow’s homeless, and where do they come from?

Deacon Oleg Vishinsky, who coordinates the homeless programme for Mercy, a Russian Orthodox charity, says the majority are former prisoners. "They lose contact with society during their time in jail," Vishinsky says. "They can’t find work, or a place to live. They have no relatives, or their relatives have died, or they refuse to have anything to do with them."

The lack of social rehabilitation programmes for ex-prisoners in Russia means a high percentage of them end up on the street, he says. Others include incomers, who can’t find work or lodgings and are often too ashamed to go home, young adults who grew up in orphanages and children’s homes and haven’t adapted to ordinary society or, like Kirill Chetyrkin, victims of property thieves. Many suffer from mental health problems; some are physically ill or invalids. Maria Khokhlova explains why people are lured to the capital.

"Moscow seems like an attractive place; everyone hears that there's big money to be made here, and they come here to make their fortunes," Khokhlova says. "But once they get here, they don't find work. They're swindled, or the police take their documents -- the problem is particularly bad where people from the near abroad are concerned."

The city authorities provide some assistance. They have established five hostels across the capital where the homeless can sleep and wash. But the largest of these accommodates just 500, the smallest about 80, leaving the vast majority to fend for themselves in subways, metro stations and doorways.

"For the government the problem of homeless is not a high priority, it's not even a low priority, because homeless people are, on the whole, adults; they don't have any formal obstacles that prevent them from solving their own problems," Vishinsky says. "The vast majority are able-bodied, a lot of them do have houses, not in Moscow, but in the places they have come from. They have a house, they have a family."

...Out Of Mind

As with many other social problems blighting Russian society today -- from alcoholism to demographic trends -- the issue of homelessness tends to be swept under the carpet, Vishinsky says. Indeed, the mere existence of homelessness sits uncomfortably with Moscow's authorities, who have done much to promote the city as a world capital. Developers are working on dozens of projects to build luxury offices and apartment blocks, while Moskva-City, a new business district, will soon be home to Europe's tallest tower.

Often Moscow authorities deal with the problem of homelessness by simply removing it from the city. On special occasions, including Victory Day and City Day, homeless people are herded onto buses and driven out of town for 24 hours.

Back at the art class, Kirill Chetyrkin, 37, talks about the death of his wife, an event that set off the spiral that has left him homeless for almost two years. After her death, he sold the family flat to move into a smaller apartment. But the buyer swindled him out of the money and he was forced onto the street. Today, he has a bed at Marfino Hostel.

"[In these classes] people can forget their psychological stress for a short time. For four hours, we don't have to wander around with nothing to do. We have something to occupy us. We can relax -- each of us as best as we can," Chetyrkin says. "Of course, when the class ends our problems begin again, but for four hours we have some sort of purpose."

New laws making it compulsory to have registration at a certain address are making it even more difficult for homeless people to get out of the rut, Khokhlova says. Human rights groups are fighting to relax the laws, but so far they have been met with resistance.

Russians go to the polls in March to vote for a new president, but the issue of homelessness is unlikely to be on any candidate agendas or even on many voters' minds. And until the government takes steps to ease the plight of its most disenfranchised inhabitants, Khokhlova says, the problem of Russia's homeless is only going to get worse.

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

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