MOSCOW (AFP) – With temperatures outside well below freezing, about 30 homeless people gather around a television set in one of Moscow’s few dedicated shelters, far from the city centre.
Wearing a medical mask to reduce the risk of infectious diseases, an employee keeps a note of new arrivals at the 24-hour centre in Lyublino, a southeastern suburb of the sprawling Russian capital. At the back of the registration room, a homeless woman in a wheelchair weeps silently.
“This is a model centre for Russia,” said Sergei Timoshenkov, director of the facility which has 1,000 beds and some 500 employees.
The Lyublino shelter offers the capital’s homeless a place to wash, eat and change their clothes, as well as legal advice and psychological support.
Those who come are usually required to be sober but the rule is suspended during the winter, when a night spent exposed on the streets could mean death.
For the past 10 years, the centre has been at the forefront of the city’s efforts to tackle its homeless problem.
During the Soviet era, homeless people were prosecuted under anti-begging laws.
Their number boomed during the 1990s with the economic collapse that followed the fall of the USSR.
Now there are six such shelters – Lyublino and five smaller ones – in the capital, and NGOs working in the field have largely praised Moscow’s progress on the issue.
But some criticise a policy that removes a group still facing lingering social stigma from the centre of the city, as Moscow continues a wave of development that accelerated leading up to last year’s World Cup.
“The current policy is to put homeless people out of sight,” said Darya Baibakova, of the Nochlezhka NGO, that works with those without permanent accommodation.
She believes that Moscow should have facilities in every district, rather than in “remote industrial areas”.
And she underlines the lasting impact of the “long years of stigmatisation” of homeless people.
In October, Nochlezhka had to drop a plan to open a launderette for homeless people near the city centre under pressure from residents.
“Some locals threatened to beat up our staff, set fire to the launderette, and even kill the homeless people,” said Baibakova.
Nonetheless, the Lyublino centre and Moscow’s wider policy have borne results.
In 2003, 1,200 homeless people in Moscow died from the cold. In the winter of 2017-2018, the death toll was 11.
Yury, who had eight fingers and both legs amputated due to severe frostbite, has spent the night at the shelter with his girlfriend.
He originates from the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, now at the centre of a conflict between Kiev and Russian-backed separatist rebels.
Yury said he lost his passport in Russia and cannot apply for a new one, meaning he has no access to city housing schemes. All he can use are the emergency shelters.
“We’ll have to leave soon,” he said, without clarifying where the couple might go after Moscow.
Some 30 vehicles patrol the streets to pick up the homeless and bring them to the facility, which is about 15 kilometres from the city centre.
“Since we started the patrols, the number of homeless people has gone down a lot because we have started taking care of them and moving them,” said Irakli Kakabadze, a member of one patrol team.
Sometimes the teams will eventually arrange for people to return to their home regions, elsewhere in Russia.
It’s difficult to ascertain reliable figures for the number of homeless people in Moscow, but city hall estimates it to be around 14,000, out of a population of 12 million in the capital.
Kakabadze’s patrol bus works around a fairly central square where many of the city’s homeless gather, near three major train stations.
Until last year, a large tent was pitched here where people in need could sleep, without being taken out of town.
“The World Cup came along and they got rid of it immediately,” said 63-year-old Ivan, a homeless man who has lived in Moscow for 15 years.
He said he understood how the “smell” and location of the tent could be off-putting to both locals and visitors.
The tent has now been permanently relocated to Lyublino.
Natalya Naidyon, who has worked on the patrol since its conception in 2009, argues that the tent in fact works better out of town.
“It’s better that all the services be in one place, it’s simpler,” she told AFP.
Centre director Timoshenkov defends Lyublino’s location as well-served by public transport and “away from residential areas to avoid inconvenience”.
Director of Russian NGO Samu Social Moskva Eva Bertrand points to how far the country has come.
“In Russia, the problem of homeless people is a recent one which was solved by repressive means in the USSR,” she told AFP.
“We can be critical but we should recognise that Moscow has developed tools and there have been debates over this.”