MOSCOW – "If you want to do good deeds, do them – but don't make those around you uncomfortable," said Kira Gorchakova, a resident of Moscow’s Begovoi district when asked about a shelter and consultative center for homeless people that has been proposed for her neighborhood.
"I have personally suggested to [project coordinator] Darya Baibakova that we go together to find a normal location two or three metro stops further out where they won't bother anyone," Gorchakova told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "In some industrial zone or an area where there are private garages."
For the last two months, Begovoi residents have been discussing a proposal by the nongovernmental organization Nochlezhka to open a small center to aid homeless people. Under the plan, the facility would provide legal, medical, and psychological consulting, as well as provide up to 15 beds for temporary shelter for its clients.
On September 12, Nochlezhka held an open discussion of the project, at which the St. Petersburg-based NGO's director, Grigory Sverdlin, and Baibakova, its Moscow coordinator, sought to explain the project and counter the opposition of some 90 local residents.
Sverdlin explained that Nochlezhka has worked successfully in St. Petersburg for 29 years and showed slides of their analogous facility in the northern capital.
"You have in your minds the image of a dirty, bad-smelling person," Sverdlin told the audience. "But 16 percent of those with whom we work have higher educations. Fifteen percent have been released from orphanages. Many of them are elderly people without families. And 40 to 45 percent of them are people who came from poor regions to earn a living and who were tricked by their employers.
"Today, he has money for a hostel, but tomorrow, he is sleeping at the train station," Sverdlin continued. "Our purpose is to help him get out of this difficult situation: find work, get his documents back. We don't work with drunkards, and we don't plan to feed the masses."
His audience remained skeptical throughout his presentation and most walked out after less than an hour. Opposition to the initiative has been spearheaded by local councilwoman Zoya Andrianova, who says she has gathered the signatures of some 1,500 residents of the Begovoi district, which is on the northwestern edge of the city center, on a petition against it.
"I am personally ready to help Nochlezhka move forward with this project, but only if they do not open it in Begovoi," Andrianova said.
Despite Nochlezhka's solid reputation in St. Petersburg, Andrianova suggested she was deeply skeptical about the organization itself.
"This is just another public relations move for Nochlezhka, to get more coverage in the press," she said. "I think it is just a way of making money. They come to a neighborhood, make some noise, and get people upset. Then they attract some protest and opposition media who write that this is a human rights violation and 'look at these poor homeless people.' People feel sorry for them and start sending in money. It is practically an extortion scam, but that can't be proven."
There are no reliable statistics for the number of homeless people in Moscow, a city of more than 12 million. The authorities put the figure at between 15,000 and 18,000 people, but NGOs say the number is considerably higher. The city government only provides assistance to homeless people whose last official residence was in Moscow itself, which activists say suppresses their figures.
The city runs six shelters for the homeless, including a warehouse-sized facility in Lyublino that has 1,000 beds and is run by 500 employees. In June 2018, a large shelter existed between the Yaroslavl, Kazan, and Leningrad railway stations, but city authorities relocated it to the outskirts of town in preparation for hosting the World Cup soccer tournament.
"The current policy is to put homeless people out of sight," Nochlezhka's Baibakova told France 24 television in February.
The Begovoi controversy is the second for Nochlezhka in Moscow. In 2018, the NGO tried for two months to open a laundry facility for the homeless in the Savyolovsky district, but gave up on the idea because of the resistance of locals.
"Last year, when we wanted to open a laundry in the Savyolovsky district, we made several mistakes, and we do not intend to repeat them now," Baibakova told RFE/RL. "So, two months ago we met with the head of the Begovoi district, and now we are engaging with active residents."
As part of the persuasion effort, Nochlezhka invited Begovoi activists to visit their St. Petersburg projects and to talk with officials there and residents of nearby neighborhoods. Gorchakova was among those who took them up on the invitation, and she claims she was not impressed.
It is a well-known story: Those who are against something actively demonstrate their opposition. Those who are in favor are in favor silently."-- Begovoi resident Ilya Katsnelson
"During the excursion, people who work nearby told me the homeless people didn't bother them at all, except that they throw cigarettes on the ground sometimes," she told Current Time. "The next morning, I took a taxi and went there again to talk to neighbors. Only two old women opened their doors to me. One said that everything was fine. The other said she won't even park her car in the area because a car was once scratched there."
Nochlezhka spent nine months looking for a location for its latest Moscow project, searching through 50 industrial zones before settling on a disused kindergarten on Pravda Street. It is 500 meters from the nearest residential building. By comparison, the group's St. Petersburg center, with a laundry, is just 35 meters from the nearest residential building and 300 meters from a school.
Locals who oppose the project note that a new residential project is under construction closer to the proposed location and that some people have already purchased apartments there.
Begovoi resident Ilya Katsnelson is among those who support the initiative. He argues that the opponents are merely a very vocal minority. He notes that Andrianova was able to collect only 1,500 signatures out of the more than 22,000 adults who live in Begovoi.
"They aren't very many, but they are the loudest ones," he told Current Time. "It is a well-known story: Those who are against something actively demonstrate their opposition. Those who are in favor are in favor silently."
Katsnelson also participated in Nochlezhka's St. Petersburg excursion.
"[Homeless clients] don't sit around Nochlezhka all day," he said. "Those who have been accepted into their resocialization program are given transport passes and they are busy in court or at the town hall, at appointments, getting their documents in order, and resolving their problems. We spoke with several of them, and I had a purely positive impression of the project.
"Almost none of these people chose to be homeless," he added. "They were cheated or deceived. They took a bad loan. They quarreled with their families. They were cheated by an employer. Stuff like that. It wasn't a voluntary choice, and many of them are ready to return to society, but they don't have the resources they need."
The fate of the Begovoi project remains up in the air. Nochlezhka does not need the permission of local residents to open it, although the opposition of politicians like Andrianova could become problematic. Baibakova would prefer to reach an accommodation with Begovoi residents and has offered to set up an oversight board of locals who could monitor the work of the center and help resolve any issues that could arise.
Kirill Levin, who also lives in the Begovoi district, wishes his neighbors would support the project.
"I'd be glad if my children knew that in our district there is such a remarkable, kind project," he told RFE/RL. "What else do we have to be proud of here – the horse track or the building of the state broadcasting company?"