The winter months are especially harsh for the homeless in Russia’s northern city of St. Petersburg, especially for those suffering serious medical problems.
“Recuperating from many illnesses in the winter and on the streets is impossible. After release from the hospital, they end up back on the streets in conditions that aren’t conducive to recovery,” said Sergei Iyevkov, the founder and direct of Charity Hospital, which has more than 100 volunteers -- including dozens of doctors -- delivering health care to the homeless.
An estimated 50,000 people in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, are believed to lack a permanent home. Beyond the daily struggle to find food and shelter, those in need of medical attention face further hurdles. Many lack health insurance or even basic identification documents. Without those, only emergency wards and the city’s sole specialized hospital for infectious diseases will treat them. Discrimination and hostility on the part of some health-care workers also dissuades many of the homeless from seeking hospital treatment, experts say. And even if they are treated for an illness, many of them never fully recover.
“For example, a person gets frostbite on his leg, has it amputated, and is discharged. He may then suffer acute pain, get infections or a fever. Getting to a health center is not always possible. Plus, they need to find a place to sleep. In most cases, they end up in the emergency ward again. It’s a vicious circle,” Iyevkov told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Charity Hospital and other NGOs -- including the Bus of Mercy, which is run by the Russian Orthodox Church -- are providing the much-needed help the homeless aren’t getting elsewhere. Much of the medical care Charity Hospital is dispensing is done inside vans, including the Bus of Mercy and the Night Bus, run by another NGO, Nochlezhka.
“In reality, what’s the alternative to our work? These people are quietly dying on the streets or elsewhere without any care. Our goal is to give them hope. They are recovering. Many will be healthy again,” said Irina Safonova, a surgeon who volunteers with Charity Hospital -- Blagotvoritelnaya Bolnitsa in Russian.
“It’s impossible not to see what’s going on in the streets,” she said. “The problem is that few think about it. Even some of my friends and family don’t know about my work here; for many, it doesn’t make sense. Unfortunately, even in the medical field, hardly anyone knows about our work either.”
Ivan Grigoryevich turned up at an emergency ward with the hope of having his frostbitten toes amputated. However, only a wound on his head was re-bandaged; his feet were ignored.
“They didn’t even look at them and just waved me away,” he recounted at a homeless shelter in St. Petersburg that is run by the Order of Malta.
Like several homeless people who spoke to Current Time, he gave only his first name and patronymic, not his last name.
After he was turned back a second time, Ivan returned with a volunteer from the Charity Hospital. This time, the amputation was performed.
In the same shelter with Ivan was Andrei, who said the volunteers from Charity Hospital tended to his wounds after he suffered a fall at a worksite in St. Petersburg just before New Year’s Eve. His said he was wary about going to a hospital because he was working on the site “illegally.”
“The other workers took me to the gate and I waited for the ambulance. I’m from the Urals, from Perm. The people from the Night Bus helped get me into this shelter,” said Ivan, who has no plans to return to his hometown 1,500 kilometers east of St. Petersburg. “What would I do there? I can’t sit in my mother’s lap!”
He’s not the only undocumented construction worker who has been helped by the volunteers of Charity Hospital.
“Two years ago, I fell eight floors at a construction site,” said 46-year-old Nikolai Mikhailovich. "I don’t know how I survived. I was in and out of hospitals for two years. Fractures of the chest, arms, legs. Now I have [metal] plates everywhere. My wife died; my daughter kicked me out. I have a criminal record and was in prison in the '90s, and she’s a [police] investigator. She did it to save her career.”
Worsening cataracts had left Viktor Aleksandrovich nearly blind in both eyes. His plight was brought to the attention of Anna Matveyeva, an ophthalmologist and Charity Hospital volunteer, who took him to a hospital with which the charity has an agreement to perform surgical procedures.
“She picked me up in her car, took me for an examination. Then, two operations were performed in the medical center,” Viktor told Current Time. “I could see again. The light and the sky. I [had] a new life. It was like being born again. I was so happy. Before the operation, I couldn't see where I was walking [and] got around by touch. I knew my way around the shelter and knew how to get to the toilet. Now, I’m happy.”
For many of those volunteering at Charity Hospital, the experience has not only opened their eyes to the plight of the homeless but given them a deeper understanding of the scope of the problem.
The resilience and dignity displayed by the homeless as they struggle with the daily challenge to survive has left a deep impression on Matveyeva.
"Every time I come across a display of courage or compassion in a person in such a situation, I feel admiration," she said.