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


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.