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8 Jun, 2010 02:28

Homeless children still a problem in Russia

Thanks to charitable organizations and social services, the numbers of homeless children in Russia have gone down in recent years. Despite this, some still live on the streets.

Although it’s hard to gauge an accurate figure, since the fall of the Soviet Union thousands of children have become homeless.

Just a few years ago they were a common sight, children who had either been abandoned or escaped from abuse and families that very often had broken apart because of alcohol addiction and extreme poverty.

In the last decade, thanks to the efforts of charities and the government, many of these children have been placed in children's homes or shelters. But still today, there remain those who are simply falling through the net.

“I wasn’t beaten or anything by my mom, it just feels better living outside,” said Sasha Istomin, one of such children. “I walk around and get money by begging in Red Square or in various parks… We also watch to see if people are leaving a house, it means the house is going to be pulled down soon. In that case it’s better to get into a flat before others come and grab it for themselves.”

Despite being only thirteen years old, Sasha’s lived away from home for nearly a year. He’s lived here in a derelict building for a month without being removed by authorities and the living conditions are extremely poor.

Broken glass, alcohol bottles and cigarette packets litter the filthy floor and the smell of rotten garbage is overpowering… yet Sasha insists that this lifestyle gives him freedom, though while standing among the piles of waste one can’t imagine anything further from it.

“It seems to me that this situation requires serious government involvement,” claimed Elena Nikolaeva , chairwoman, Commission for Social Issues and Demographic Development, Public Chamber of the Russian Federation. “Authorities at different levels and the public should primarily understand the reason for homeless children in this country, today. In many respects the problem is that the family unit in Russia has a very low status. There is very little said about any serious family policy that would support, including economically, the family.”

Sasha described how the friends he’s made on the street feel like his family, and very often this lifestyle can be more desirable to children than the shelters where they find it hard to deal with discipline. But the reality is that life on the streets often ends with addiction, abuse, disease and even death.

“When the authorities find a child, they should first determine their legal status – meaning whether they have parents or not and the family situation,” explained Pavel Astakhov, Ombudsman for Children's Rights in the Russian President's Administration. “It should be defined within 6 months so that they can be sent to the correct place or returned to their parents. Over the past couple of years Russia has been trying to take all homeless children off the streets. But there will always be children who will run away.”

When RT’s film crew informed authorities about Sasha’s whereabouts, they went to pick him up.

“Sasha comes from a good family,” said Denis Stepanov, Commissioner for the Affairs of Minors from Pavlov Posad District. “His mother is a good woman. It’s just that he has no father and we think that’s why Sasha is often away from home. We’ve been monitoring him for two years and will hopefully arrange for him to be at a social centre summer camp this year.”

Although steps are being taken, it's still just the start of what will be a long road – trying to reintegrate these lost children to ensure they don’t once again end up on the streets alone.