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24 Jul, 2009 05:20

Homeless haven gives new hope

More than two million people in Russia are thought to be homeless and living without state benefits and healthcare. Their chances of returning to a normal life are slim, but some people are trying to make a difference.

Without an address at which to register themselves, homeless people, or “bomzhi” as they’re known in Russia, are deprived of employment, medical services and social welfare.

Having nowhere to live means they have no chance of getting a job, which leads to a vicious circle. Some survive through help from charities, but they are now being forced to halve their aid because of the economic climate.

In one part of the country some hope still remains. In the rural region of Tula, about 200km from Moscow, a woman from Chechnya is helping others start again.

Rosa Khamzatkhanova has been homeless herself for over 15 years and came to Moscow with her four children almost a decade ago.

She is now in charge of two shelters which are home to 30 adults and eight children. It is a tight squeeze, but still better than life on the streets.

“It’s like a big friendly family. My people don’t roam around the village, they move only between these two houses,” Rosa explains.

“I’m constantly watching them, because I sleep only three-four hours a day. In summer, I even sleep outdoors to be able to control the situation around,” she adds.

This means strictly no alcohol, and anyone caught behaving badly is out and back on the streets. As such, the shelter’s residents all play a key role in keeping the place running.

They have simple tasks, such as growing vegetables or construction work, which give the people living there some kind of responsibility and bring focus and purpose to their life.

This would not have been possible without the help of local Priest Emelyan. He helped finance the shelters, raising $8,000 for construction and food.

Crucially, he has helped them get documentation, including internal passports, which are essential for life and work in Russia. He says it is a life and death situation:

“I want those people who come to our church dirty, drunk, and with lice to become normal citizens with documents and a desire to live a decent life,” the priest explains.

“I hope we can help them to own their own houses. Usually they come to us absolutely hopeless. If we don’t help them, they’ll all die soon.”

Fifteen people have already come through the shelter in the past year and a half and are now living in their own homes after getting the new passports and documents they needed, which is the ultimate aim of former teacher Galina. She became homeless after moving to Moscow from Ulyanovosk to make more money. She lost her passport, and suddenly found herself unable to get a job. Now, she is one of the shelter’s residents.

“Before I used to think: ‘Look, homeless! How could people sink into such a miserable life?’,” Galina recalls.

“But now I’m in the same position myself. I know what it means. But all people here are kind, hard-working. Some even have a degree.”

While the people here are offered the chance to start afresh, life is still a struggle both with the authorities and their health. Food is always needed, and they can eat only what they can grow or make themselves and rely on donations for vital building materials to provide a roof over their head.

Regardless of the small scale of the shelter’s operation, for many this is the helping hand they desperately need to, hopefully, take control of their lives once again.