NGO Gears Up to Help Homeless This Winter

There are more than 50,000 homeless people in St. Petersburg, and one heated tent. That tent helped 100 people survive last winter.

With the coldest days of winter yet to arrive, anticipation is in the air ¬and perhaps nowhere more so than at 112B Borovaya St., where a large heated tent has opened to warm the city's homeless as temperatures drop below zero.

The spacious army-style tent with heaters can accommodate up to 50 to 60 overnight guests and is open from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. The shelter, which is so far the only one of its kind in town, will be open until the spring thaw. Those with nowhere to go will get a roof, a hot meal and, if necessary, new clothes. The project is funded jointly by the Nochlezhka (Night Shelter) charity and the Maltese Charity Service. At night, there is a social worker on duty, and a nurse comes every morning to offer basic medical assistance.

For hot meals, help for the homeless is offered by the Night Bus service, which distributes meals every day from 7 p.m. through midnight between the metro stations Lesnaya, Prospekt Prosveshchenia and Chernaya Rechka and a location by the Smolenskoye cemetery. Owing to a lack of funds, however, volunteers have been forced to reduce the size of portions. It is also unclear whether the buses will continue to operate after New Year, since no grants have yet been received.

Nochlezhka has been operating in Russia for more than 17 years, helping the city's most vulnerable people who live in extreme poverty and are deprived of access to housing, medical help and employment. The charity regularly organizes campaigns aimed at changing the attitude of the public, media and government toward homelessness.

In June 2009, Nochlezhka organized an action on Malaya Konyushennaya Street to draw attention to homeless women. Dozens of volunteers pushed each other roughly to compete for a place on the only bed available to them. The city's shelters provide just 46 beds for women, and there are at least 200 people competing for each place. Nochlezhka has appealed to City Hall to open a shelter for women, but the request was turned down.

City police do not issue figures on the number of homeless people who freeze to death every year on the streets of St. Petersburg, but local charities say hundreds of people die or become seriously ill from hypothermia from October to April.

Volunteers are appealing to St. Petersburg residents to donate money for a second heated tent. The cost of operating the tent for one day is 4,000 rubles. The cost of running an overnight shelter during the whole winter season comes to more than 600,000 rubles.

In 2008, the tent helped more than 100 local homeless people to survive the winter.

Statistics on the numbers of homeless people in the city vary drastically.

The government-run City Homeless Registration Center lists 6,500 homeless individuals in St. Petersburg, while Maxim Yegorov, head of Nochlezhka, estimates that there are at least 54,000 homeless people living in the city.

Yegorov said St. Petersburg's homeless can be divided into three main groups: former prisoners who have lost their housing registration; people who have been swindled or coerced out of their apartments; and others who for various reasons have left or run away from their original homes.

Many homeless people seek refuge in apartment buildings, but code locks and intercoms are making this increasingly difficult.

The city's night shelters can only accommodate about 200 people. Governor Valentina Matviyenko has promised to encourage the opening of shelters in every neighborhood in the city, but progress has been slow.

Originally published in The St. Petersburg Times

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