Working in housing and homelessness the last 10 years has allowed me to meet amazing and inspiring people. I have met people selling homeless newspapers in Hannover, Germany, leaders in Portland, Oregon, real estate developers in Arizona, advocates in Scotland. Every day, I meet people who give their life’s to helping those who have the least. I recently visited Russia and will admit that the lack of social supports for homeless was hard to understand. I will never insult another culture because that is not my place and I do not understand the history and backgrounds of what made a system the way it is. The one thing I am comfortable saying is that Russia is a miserable place to be if you become homeless. The government does not care for you or if they do you are one of the lucky ones. I do not believe police are there to help and the social systems will not bring you back to your feet.
That is why my short visit to the homeless non-profit Nochlezhka made such an impression on me. There simply is no other organization in St. Petersburg or the entire Russia that is doing what Nochlezhka is doing or on that scale. As I learned more about the organization and its staff, one name jumped out to me time and time again.
I am not religious but I believe this man to be a saint. In a country where many people are cold and numb to the homeless, he is a caring soul. When nobody listens to the retirement age woman who lost her job, he listens and helps. When a mentally ill woman is being put out of her apartment by scamming scum-bags, he take heed and brings in assistance. When a young man is down on his luck and without documentation, Igor is there to make the connections to the right social workers to change life’s.
Igor is the driver of the unique night bus. The night bus is a mobile soup kitchen of sorts. It brings meals and clothes and medical help to those suffering homelessness in St. Petersburg. He is so much more than just a driver. He is a master of connection, compassion and human empathy.
Ask yourself a question. If you lost your job and had nobody, could you at least go to some government institution and expect some help? Chances are if you are reading this, the answer is yes. If you had the shit beaten out of you and your documents stolen, would you expect the police to help and show concern? If you are reading this, the answer is probably yes. Our systems in many countries in Europe, South Africa, Asia and the USA are not perfect but there is compassion and help. This is often not the case in Russia. In fact, you need to hide yourself if you are homeless in Russia. You should be ashamed in fact. That is why Igor’s kindness and compassion to those who are suffering homelessness is so unique. There are no homeless outreach programs in Russian cities. There are not caseworkers or homeless counts. However; the Saint of St. Petersburg does have Igor.
Below are three unique stories that I wish to share.
Petr was brought up in an orphanage but was not provided with housing which he was entitled to. He found himself on the street after he lost his job because he could no longer pay his rent. Igor the driver convinced him to go to Nochlezhka and ask for help. The man took a rehabilitation course to overcome his alcohol addiction in the shelter found a job and started renting again. Petr said, “I want to thank Igor for his kind heart and all his support, for all the light and hope that he brings to the world. He helped me once and I’m infinitely grateful for his help. If there would be more people like him in the world, it would be kinder, fairer and better.”
Elena lost her job when her skills were no longer needed. She was close to retirement age and nobody would hire her. Elena started drinking out of despair and did not know what to do. She went to the night bus each evening to get food to eat. Igor the driver asked the women about her issues and showed her support which she had not found since losing her job. He found some job openings for her and she was able to find work once again. She no longer needed the assistance of the night bus after finding stable employment.
Anna comes from St. Petersburg and has the proper paperwork. She is registered at a mental institution and lives only on benefits. One day she met a couple who asked if they could rent a room in her flat. Anna agreed because she was struggling to survive on her benefits. The new tenants did not pay their rent and even started demanding money from Anna. They threatened her with violence. As a result, she did not have money to pay her utility bills. Her debt increased, and she was at risk of being evicted. She was scared and had nobody to help her. She stayed at home less and started coming to the night bus for food. Igor talked to her about her issues and difficult situation. He helped connect Anna to the right social services at the agency. As a result, the difficult unwanted guests were evicted, and Anna found social supports she could count on.
I hope that Igor is celebrated. He deserves the attention and so does his organization. We hope that many more in Russia will learn from Igor and bring heart and concern to the homeless of all of Russia’s citiies.