How Siberia’s homeless survive -30C winters

Sleeping close enough to industrial pipes to ensure you don’t freeze to death, but far away enough to ensure you don’t receive third degree burns is a daily concern for Siberia’s dispossessed

Like many of Siberia’s homeless, Alexei Vergunov survives freezing night-time temperatures of -30C by sleeping under an industrial heating pipe for warmth. It’s a perilous existence. Too far from the pipe and he could die of exposure to the cold. Too close and he could get severe burns without him noticing at first through the haze of hard alcohol that many drink to keep warm and dull reality.

The 46-year-old has lived like this for more than 11 years. “You sleep at night with your eyes closed but your ears open,” he says. He used to yearn for a chance to rebuild his life, but since his partner, Alyonka, died two years ago of liver cancer, he has lost the will. They had lived together near the train station.

“I get through the day and that’s it,” he says. “If I found a woman like her, I could stop and try to return to society, but I can’t find anyone like her.” Vergunov, who likes to call himself Lyokha the Beard, is one of 3,500 homeless people officially living rough in the city of Omsk, though the real figure is likely higher.

He’s one of the few who stop to chat and laugh with the city’s home-dwellers. “It’s you that’s going to freeze in your apartment with three blankets, not me between the pipes,” he likes to joke. His favourite time is night. Though at its coldest, the city and rubbish dump are quiet and he is free to roam in search of glass bottles and other recyclable items he can exchange for a small sum.

The conditions homeless people in Siberia face are some of the worst in the world

Omsk, which lies three time zones east of Moscow, has a night shelter for the homeless. But it’s in a distant part of town and Vergunov doesn’t sleep there as the local homeless won’t let him earn his keep at the nearby rubbish dump on what they see as their patch.

A charity, Caritas, hands out food and clothes to help the city’s homeless, although Vergunov has also learned to be on the lookout for ill-wishers. He once saved the life of his friend, Alexander, after a group of teenagers set him on fire. Sometimes misfortune and pain can nudge Omsk’s homeless towards trying to change their lives.

Lyusya Stepanova, 44, is considering trying to return to society after more than 27 years on the streets. She was hospitalised last month for three weeks with serious burns across her body after she fell asleep too close to the pipes where she was sheltering.

She is now in a rehabilitation centre 30km out of town in the village of Rozovka. “I plan to go home, to mother,” she says, though she recognises she cannot turn back the clock on 27 years on the street. “My childhood dreams were noble, but it’s too late now, that boat has already sailed.”

Writing Tom Balmforth, Reuters

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in