I stepped out of the cab to meet my guide. He was a few minutes late. My mustache and beard froze within 2 minutes where my breath came out. Welcome to a hard-Russian freeze. I visited St. Petersburg in March as they were experiencing a cold-snap which made me reconsider my visit. My guide walked out the door and I breathed a frozen sigh of relief.
Andrey Chapaev of the homeless non-profit Nochlezhka offered his ungloved hand in a gesture of warm greetings. Nochlezhka is a charity which helps homeless people in St. Petersburg since 1990. They run their organizations by taking donations, fundraising, grants and limited subsidies. This organizations not only does some housing but it feeds homeless, helps keep them warm, figure out paperwork, apply for government benefits, find relatives who might help them back in their home towns, they also advocate and provide legal defense.
Andrey offered to give me a guided tour of what it is like to be homeless in Russia. First off, he helped me gain an understand of the overall cultural feelings toward those who are homeless. My guide said that many people in Russia do not feel that they need to help those who are homeless. It is the feeling of most people that if you are homeless, it is your fault. You are an adult and if you have not cared for your well-being, it is your fault.
Stay Hidden or Be Shamed:
We have to understand culture anytime we talk about social themes. My guide explained to me that it is not acceptable to sleep on the street and be seen. Many of the homeless that are not helped by his non-profit or other government interventions find hidden places to sleep. They sneak into buildings and hide in basements. They hide in attics of buildings. They hide underground by heating systems. They sleep in stairwells and try to stay out of the public eye.
Offering Aid in a Cold Country:
My guide started the tour by showing me the first building where the non-profit started. He explained in the former Soviet Union, it was illegal to be homeless. If you were caught sleeping on the street, you would be arrested and sent away. As a citizen, you would receive stamps for food and provisions. One day, a homeless man went to the city and asked for the right to have stamps and food. Very surprisingly, the city official told the man to start a foundation to help homeless and the city would give him stamps and food to support it.
This man also received the rights to a run-down building in a bad area of St. Petersburg and the foundation was started. They hired some social workers and even a lawyer. Later, they also created a newspaper that homeless could sell and receive some income. The newspaper was an arts newspaper that was quite popular and mentioned bands, music and art events.
The founder of the homeless organization went to the city one more time and requested more property. Once again, he received a new property that needed renovations. This property was the grounding of having beds for homeless persons in St. Petersburg and laid a foundation for the organization. Unfortunately; the politician who worked with the homeless organization was murdered on the streets. The organization did not have any papers for the building.
In the next section of this four part series, you will learn about the people being served by Nochlezhka and some of the programs.