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Russia: St. Petersburg Coming To Grips With Homeless Problem

St. Petersburg, Russia, 18 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Luda, a hunched frail old woman, often stands in the busy underpass under Sennoi Square in St. Petersburg. Unlike the other women standing nearby, hawking goods, Luda has nothing to sell. Even worse, she has nowhere to live.

With tears streaming from her eyes, Luda recalls how her only daughter kicked her out of their room in a communal flat in order to have it all for herself.

Luda now numbers among what Nochlezhka, Russia's oldest and leading charity helping the homeless, terms St. Petersburg's "no fewer than 55,000 homeless."

While homelessness is a problem in most countries, in Russia the problem has a peculiar bureaucratic nature. Valeri Sokolov, Nochlezhka's founder and director since 1990, says loss of one's propiska, residency permit, is the primary criterion for being considered homeless.

Without a propiska, one is nonexistent. One cannot legally be hired, has no social benefits, cannot rent an apartment even if one has the money, and does not have the right to vote.

Although the propiska system has been officially abolished five times this decade by the Constitutional Court, the Interior Ministry continues to enforce it in clear violation of the Russian constitution.

For most of the 1990s, the St. Petersburg city government has ignored the problem of homelessness. But within the next week or two, the city will open a social services center where the homeless will be able to receive a special document of registration -- though not a propiska, per se -- that gives them back their rights as Russian citizens.

This move is a historic first in Russia, and human rights advocates hope that it will be copied throughout the country to ameliorate what now is a Draconian attitude toward homelessness. Moscow, for example, solves its homeless problem by deporting the homeless to the city limits.

Homelessness is not a new problem in Russia. Despite the claims of Soviet propaganda which portrayed this social ill as a Western phenomenon, it did exist in the USSR.

Housing privatization which began in the early 1990s has exacerbated the problem. While many homeless are ex-convicts who lost their propiskas and housing while in prison, thousands of people in St. Petersburg have been cheated out of their apartments by criminals.

Take the case of Vitali, an elderly man who used to live alone in his two-room apartment in a part of town where real estate fetches a high price. Two weeks after he privatized his apartment in 1993, he received a ring at the door at 2 a.m. and refused to open. He says criminals broke it down and forced to sign him a document giving the criminals possession of his apartment. In his words: "They beat me badly, threw me out, and threatened to kill me if I reported the incident to anyone." Vitali now lives in basements, and occasionally with friends.

Sokolov estimates that about 30 percent of those who became homeless in 1996 owe their plight to apartment fraud. This figure is up from 17 percent in 1994. Most of these victims are Russia's most vulnerable -- elderly shut-ins, alcoholics, and the mentally ill. Sokolov says incidence of apartment fraud has peaked, but persists.