Marina Koreneva -
As the fierce winter drags towards an end in Russia’s second city of Saint Petersburg, Eduard Okuniyev is counting himself lucky to still be alive.
For six years he has been living rough on the streets of the country’s former imperial capital and says he can never be sure he is going to make it through the deep freeze.
“How can you survive on the street when it’s minus 25 — It’s impossible without the help of good people,” said the 43-year-old, who ended up homeless after a family dispute.
Winds blowing off the Baltic Sea and moisture in the air make the chill factor particularly bad in the city, even though its temperatures are still nowhere near as low as the country’s Siberian hinterland.
Yet Saint Petersburg, like most of Russia’s big cities, offers few places for homeless people to turn to for help during the long winter months, whether state-funded or private.
In the evenings, Okuniyev goes to a heated tent provided by Nochlezhka, or night shelter, one of the few NGOs to help people on the streets.
He spends the night in the tent in the city’s north with some
20 other homeless people. Most are men, each carries a ground sheet to sleep on.
Early in the morning they drink tea to warm up before venturing back into the cold — where the struggle to find a warm place to shelter begins again. “I go to the railway station or else I look for a cellar or an attic, anywhere as long as I’m not outside,” says Okuniyev, who still takes pride in his appearance despite his housing difficulties.
There are no official statistics on the numbers of homeless who freeze to death each winter across Russia, but Nochlezhka’s spokeswoman Vlada Gasnikova said that 1,122 homeless people died in Saint Petersburg in 2016, half of them in winter.
Some die of hypothermia, while others suffer complications from existing conditions. Five times a week, Nochlezhka, which was founded in 1990, drives round in a minibus and hands out hot meals to more than 200 people in areas on the outskirts of the city.
Even in good weather Russia’s homeless people find it very difficult to get access to medical care or find work and somewhere to live.
The cold is an additional factor that makes survival less likely for
Nochlezhka gives 52 people the chance to sleep in the warm in its shelter. Its volunteers also help people with legal problems and in their search for work and accommodation.
“It’s thanks to them that I replaced my passport,” an essential form of ID used to access public services in Russia, said Okuniyev.
“Since then, I’ve had more confidence in myself and I feel more hope that my life will change.” — AFP