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Russia: Moscow's Homeless Try To Survive Life On The Streets

In Moscow, Russia's largest and most prosperous city, an estimated 300,000 people are homeless, living on the streets without documents or rights. This winter's brutal weather and the indifference of many city officials have made the problem especially grim.

Moscow, 10 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow is not the only city in Russia with a large homeless population. But the capital is unique in that it is virtually the only Russian city where extreme wealth and desperate poverty live virtually side by side.

Moscow's prosperity each year lures thousands of people from throughout Russia and the former Soviet republics. They come to the capital looking for a better life. But for some, it is a journey that ends on the street.

There are an estimated 300,000 homeless in the capital -- people whom Moscow's long-standing mayor, Yurii Luzhkov, refers to as "rats" who bring crime and disease to Russia's prized city. That attitude, combined with scanty protection from the state and the brutal winter weather, makes the plight of Moscow's homeless all the more dire.

Forty-five-year-old Dmitrii is from Belarus. He comes every day to Moscow's Prospekt Mira metro station to get warm and ask for money from the crowds of passers-by. Dmitrii came to Moscow four years ago after the factory where he worked stopped paying wages. But soon after he arrived, he says, his documents were stolen. Since then, he has been unable to either find a legal job or return home.

Dmitrii recalls the way he was treated when he went to the Belarusian Consulate to ask for a new passport: "It is useless to go [to the Belarusian Consulate]. [Employees say]: 'You are a beggar. Go and beg.' That's all."

Dmitrii's story is a common one, according to Marina Bobrova, a social worker with the international organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Bobrova says in Russia, losing your passport and residence permit -- documents that people are required to carry with them at all times, and without which they cannot receive free social or medical care -- is the equivalent of losing your rights, with no easy means of recovering your standing.

She says the situation is especially difficult for people from elsewhere in the CIS, whose embassies often charge large fees to issue new documents. The result, Bobrova says, is a vicious cycle: "If you don't have documents, you can't get a [legal] job. If you can't get a job, you won't have the money to pay for the documents. It is kind of a no-way-out situation."

In Moscow, homeless people and people without documents can fall prey to unscrupulous employers, who at the end of a month of work can refuse to pay wages, knowing the employee has no form of recourse. They can also suffer the added difficulty of becoming the targets of city police officers, who are known to demand bribes or simply take money from people on the street to supplement their own meager incomes.

Dmitrii recalls how once, coming back to an empty basement in a Moscow suburb where he had found temporary shelter, he was stopped by police, who took most of the money he had managed to earn that week: "[Once] I was going back from work by metro. I was a little bit drunk. I staggered a bit. [A policeman noticed me and he said:] 'Come here.' Then the policeman slipped his hand into my pocket and took my 1,500 rubles (about $50), giving me a 100-ruble note back. I said: 'What are you doing? That's my money.' But he said: 'What do you want? You don't have any registration. Go away.'"

According to Hedwige Jeanmart, an assistant for MSF dealing with homeless people's problems, the issue of registration and rights could be easily solved in Moscow if local authorities were more sensitive toward homelessness and other poverty-related problems. St. Petersburg, for example, has numerous registration points where that city's some 54,000 homeless can receive a special document entitling them to basic rights.

Jeanmart explains: "In St. Petersburg, [authorities] made big efforts to solve part of the problem. They opened free access medical points for homeless people. They also created registration points. It means that even people without legal documents can go to this registration point and receive a kind of document saying that, for example, 'Ivan Ivanovich was born in this place,' and with this he can have access to social assistance. He can receive his pension. If he is an invalid, he has access to social medical assistance, and so on."

When MSF began tackling the problem of homelessness in Moscow in 1992, the official number of homeless was 30,000. Today, official figures put that number at 100,000, but Jeanmart says the real figure is at least three times greater. MSF carries out about 500 medical and social consultations a week in Moscow, and also helps people solve legal problems and replace official documents.

Another problem contributing to the homeless issue is Russia's large prison population. Many homeless people are former inmates who, once released, are not able to fight to reclaim the homes they occupied before they were incarcerated. Convicts in Soviet times automatically lost their claim on an apartment. This practice was declared unconstitutional in 1995, but Bobrova says many former convicts are still not aware of the change.

"According to the [Soviet] law, if people were convicted for more than six months, they automatically lost their place to live. But according to the [Russian] Constitution, every citizen has the right to have a living place guaranteed. [For this reason], in 1995 the constitutional tribunal changed the law. Now, no matter how long people are convicted, they have the right to keep their place to live. If people lost their living place before the [new] law was put into force, they have the right to appeal to the Constitutional Court and they'll be given back their living place or they'll get a new one. But the problem is that former convicts don't know their rights and they are still homeless."

Bobrova says Russia's legal code includes a number of laws designed to protect the most vulnerable members of society. But, she adds, these laws work only in theory. In reality, she says, many poor and homeless people must wade through complex bureaucratic procedures in order to receive the rights they are legally guaranteed.

Forty-seven-year-old Vyacheslav sits with some other homeless men in the waiting room of Moscow's Paveletsky train station. A native of Russia's northwest Tulsky region, Vyacheslav came to Moscow seven years ago. He was able to find a well-paying job in a building yard but says he was eventually fired because of a drinking problem. He soon lost his apartment and his wife, as well. But even that was not enough to make him give up alcohol.

Vyacheslav describes his life today: "[I live] in this way: I gather [empty beer] bottles (beer bottles can be sold for a ruble each), cans. Sometimes we look into the garbage bins, in the hope to find something good [to eat]. At least, we always take the bread."

Vyacheslav says life as a homeless person in Moscow is hard. He says that during the holidays or other major events in the city, the police work to clean the streets of any trace of poverty or homelessness:

"The OMON [special police force] clean [the city]. They go to the markets, [where many homeless people gather during the day]. They take people without registration and they drive them out to forested areas outside of Moscow. But the next day the people [manage to] come back."

MSF's Jeanmart says Moscow authorities are displeased by the growing number of people sleeping on the streets or begging for money. "Moscow is still a very closed city," she says. "It's only for the Muscovites and the foreigners [from the West]."

Her colleague Bobrova adds that even the city's homeless shelters only accept Muscovites, who make up just 20 percent of the city's homeless population: "In every Moscow neighborhood there are shelters, but only former Muscovites have the right to use them. In other [Russian] cities, people from any region are allowed [to use the shelters], but in Moscow they are only for the Muscovites."

Adding to the woes of the city's homeless are this winter's record temperatures, which have plunged as low as minus 25 degrees Celsius. Some 300 people, many of them homeless, have already died of hypothermia in Moscow.

The situation has prompted MSF to launch a public awareness campaign to help educate Muscovites about the plight of the city's homeless. The campaign includes posters, put up in the city's metro, asking: "Could you survive without a home?"

An MSF press release says the Moscow government is also responding to the crisis by opening a center to provide medical and social assistance to the city's homeless.