Moscow's legion of despair detects a glimmer of hope

Help for the homeless: Russian capital plans shelters for some of the thousands who sleep rough in sub-zero temperatures

PHIL REEVES

Moscow

Threatened by tuberculosis, low temperatures and an assortment of other nasty conditions, Russia's homeless have begun the New Year with a small glimmer of hope - the announcement that moves are finally planned in Moscow to provide roofs over their heads.

The city authorities say they will open 10 shelters this year for the growing army of people living on the streets, including some who lost their homes and jobs in the slump following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The initiative sounds like a drop in the ocean until it is compared with present arrangements: the entire metropolis has one government-run hostel for the homeless, with room for 24 people. Some 250,000 people bunk down every night in stations, doorways, heating vents, or anywhere else that affords shelter from the deadly -20C temperatures.

They include Andrei, sitting yesterday in the grimy walkway of a Moscow metro station, his crippled legs folded beneath him, waiting for a glimmer of charity from the sea of commuters which swept endlessly past, back at work for the first day after the New Year.

Changes in the calendar matter far less to this 20-year-old invalid than the contents of his plastic bag, his version of a begging bowl, which sits at his feet not far from the spot on the pavement at which he stares without interruption, not even lifting his face when a few hundred roubles flutter down from a passer-by. "They say it is the strongest who survive, and the weaker who die." He says this with such an air of misery that one need not ask which category he places himself in.

Five years ago, in Soviet times, Andrei - who spends his nights in railway stations - could not have lived as he now does. Homelessness was illegal: police from the Interior Ministry patrolled the streets, dispatching vagrants to jail-like hostels. In Moscow, the penalty for being found more than twice in a year without an address or documents was six months' jail.

In December 1993 the law was scrapped. The number of vagrants has since swelled steadily as the economy declined. Charity workers say four out of five are men, usually between 25 and 40, including many from the ex- Soviet republics. They come in the belief that Moscow is, if not paved with gold, at least a dependable source of employment.

What they discover, however, is a world where it is infinitely easier to develop tuberculosis, lice or scabies - or to receive a beating from the police - than it is to secure a job. So they often turn to begging.

But Russia's homeless - known as bomzhi (a police acronym for someone with no fixed address: bez opredelyonnogo mesta zhitelstva) do not always conform to the caricature of the criminal, habitually vagrant, Western hobo, even though about 20 per cent are ex-convicts. "We quite often have people who have university-level education and who had a job and lost it," said Siobhan Keegan, medical co-ordinator with Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), which runs several medical centres for the homeless in Moscow.

In Soviet times, the authorities instructed businesses to employ and house vagrants, no matter how ill-suited they were to work. Now, privatised companies welcome the prospect of a bomzhi worker with about as much relish as a tax demand, and rarely take them on. Andrei had seven years of secondary education before being injured in a bad fall: "Who will take me as a worker? You have to be able to do something."

News that the city is finally moving to provide shelters elicited no more than a shrug from him. Nor was Miss Keegan popping open the champagne, although she gave the announcement a cautious welcome: "We would be very happy if they can do something, but our experience here has taught us to adopt a wait-and-see attitude." An announcement by Itar-Tass news agency underlines her point. "Yeltsin orders an end to vagrancy and begging," it trumpets. But it was dated 3 November 1993.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Arts and Entertainment
music

News
Russell Brand at an anti-austerity march in June
peopleActor and comedian says 'there's no point doing it if you're not'
Sport
Sergio Aguero prepares for the game
football

Follow the latest events from this Champions League fixture

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Voices
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Arts and Entertainment
Sister Cristina Scuccia sings 'Like a Virgin' in Venice
music

Like Madonna, Sister Cristina Scuccia's video is also set in Venice

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say

News
news

Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

IT Teacher

£100 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: IT teacher required immediately...

IT Security Advisor – Permanent – Surrey - £60k-£70k

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

IT Assistant - Windows XP/7/8, Networks Firewalls/VPN's

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Assistant - Windows XP/7/8, Netwo...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album