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Diaconia: Work with the homeless
The problem of the homeless in Russia today
The Lestvitsa adaptation and rehabilitation centre
An asylum at the Mytischi Church of Our Lady of Vladimir
A Charity at Sts Peter and Paul's
A first-hand story

The problem of the homeless in Russia today

The period of political and economic reforms in Russia has proved long enough to make a negative impact on people's social condition. Most people in the Russian Federation belonged to the low-income category in the Soviet period. The last ten years have become but destructive for many people who have failed to adapt themselves to the new economic situation. This destabilisation has been augmented by the state's neglect of the consequences of legal nihilism and economic chaos which have led to a criminal outrage, especially in real estate deals and high finance. This sharp deterioration in the socio-economic situation in Russia today has resulted, among other things, in massive homelessness.

According to the Interior Ministry' data, from 100 to 350 thousand people have no residence in Moscow alone. About 20% of them are Muscovites; 60% are people from other regions in Russia; and 10% are CIS citizens. Actually, almost half of the homeless in Moscow are not at all those people without a permanent address or occupation who are described as "vagrant" in official documents. They do have a place to live and a residence permit (which has been abolished, though). They have found themselves in our big city for various reasons. Moscow, like any other big city offering various job opportunities, tends to attract thousands of "tramps". Applying for aid, they usually account for their homelessness by a lack of livelihood or escape from economically unsound territories or just a robbery at a railway station. Every tenth of the temporarily homeless has come to Moscow to solve a particular legal, economic or medical problem insoluble back home.

About 55% out of the total number of the homeless in Moscow can be described as homeless proper. One third of them are former convicts. According to law, many of them have the right to resume their registration and residence but have nowhere to live while getting this right realised. For those who had lived in Moscow before, this problem has been partially solved thanks to the Moscow Government. In Moscow they can register and stay at night asylums, while in many other regions in Russia there are no such places.

Really homeless people are those who either have sold their places, with many having been cheated in residence exchange, or have found themselves in the street because of family problems, such as divorce, banishment by relatives, escape from drinking relatives, one's own drinking, or have lost their departmental accommodation due to redundancy or discharge. These three groups are approximately the same in number, some 20% of the total number of the homeless proper.

The smallest group of the homeless, some 10%, are those who have opted for this way of life. It is often true however that this option has been made not by them, but rather by life. Though only every twelfth homeless person in Moscow, including those who have no residence only temporarily, belongs to this group, it is they who have created this hideous image of the homeless.

Some officials and philistines insist that the homeless are a good-for-nothing and disabled mass. This is absolutely wrong, for 75% of the homeless are people of from 20 to 50 years of age, with a large section of them under 35. Of course, among them there are those who "gave themselves up as a bad job", but many of them want to resume normal life, and it is a task of our society, which wants to be described as civilised and humane, to give them a chance to stand on their feet.

Unfortunately, the aid to the homeless given by the state is too slow and often ineffective. The novelty of this problem has paralysed functionaries. The way to solve it has been still basically to banish homeless Muscovites to anywhere beyond the notorious 101st kilometre or to put them up at night asylums. At present there are 5 such places in Moscow, while before the 1917 Revolution there were 360 (!) almshouses while the population was 5 times smaller than it is today.

The indecision and inability of state structures to set up a mechanism for people to restore their lost opportunities, dignity and civil rights have compelled those who cannot sleep quietly at home while somebody has to sleep in the street to act more actively and resolutely. This represents substantive sharing in the Christian duty to help one's neighbour. It would be good if everyone who hates to see the homeless and their helplessness should awake and give help to weaker and miserable ones. There is an old saying: "Never vow to escape prison or beggar's bag". It is a strict reminder that trouble knows how to catch you in an imperfect and sinful world, and our today's peace and carelessness cannot safeguard us against the many-faced evil which can invade our stability and well-being. "Never ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for you". We cannot help all. All are helped by God. But we can help many in the same way we help ourselves.

A. Kozhemiakin,
of Russia-American Orthodox Brotherhood
of St. Seraphim of Sarov
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The Lestvitsa adaptation and rehabilitation centre

The adaptation and rehabilitation centre (ARC) of social aid "Lestvitsa" (Ladder) was established in August 1997 as a structural unit of the Interregional Public Charity "Lepta" (Contribution) to give social support to the victims of emergency situations who have no permanent address or occupation.

The centre functions basically following the standards set forth by the governments of Russia and Moscow in their Provisions for Social Institutions for the Homeless and Jobless containing a list of social, domestic and medical services to be rendered, including:

  • emergency medical and psychological aid;
  • establishing, on the basis of the actual state of a pensioner, his or her capability and actual social status, searching information about him or her at his former address and job through the Interior Ministry agencies and fixing his or her family relations;
  • aid in the restoration of lost identity papers;
  • hospitalisation;
  • preventive medical check-up and support for alcoholics and drug-addicts in periods of heavy dependence;
  • psychological and spiritual support in the form of talks and individual contacts with psychologists;
  • providing hot food, special clothing and equipment for work in the field;
  • assistance in temporary employment, purchasing railway tickets to return home;
  • providing specialists and persons with particular skills with the same or similar employment on the basis of contracts and work agreements.
The centre's mechanism of adaptation and rehabilitation presupposes full or partial employment among former "trumps" so that they could feel themselves full-fledged and important members of society. Certainly, the complexity of human personality demands a diversity of ways and means to ensure the social adaptation of a person considering his or her specific situation. These include deliverance of a person from alcoholic dependence through many-faceted methodology and individual and corporate training for new occupations and skills.

The Lestvitsa centre accepts those who wish and able to observe its working and rehabilitative regulations, instructions and behaviour rules during a period from 1 to 6 months depending on the agreement concluded between a pensioner and the centre's administration. At the same time, the centre takes stock of the time and costs involved in the employment of each pensioner to deduce later a compensation for the housing, food, services, clothing and transportation provided under a preliminary agreement sealed in appropriate documents.

People living in railway stations, attics and cells can now come to the centre to find first temporary and later permanent home. They are given here an opportunity to return to normal life, to get rid of their weakness for alcohol, to resume their former trade or to acquire new skills, to find in time a living accommodation and to create a family. It is all the more realistic that among the homeless there are many qualified specialists, educated and quite able-bodied people.

The Lestvitsa centre began to function in 1997. The Serpukhov District Administration, Moscow Region, has given it, free of charge, the territory of the former mental hospital at the Proletarsky settlement with a complex of buildings including three hospitals, a laundry, two garages and a boiler-house. The buildings are in bad repair: the roofs and tubes are leaking, the wooden structures are worn out, the boiler-house is out of order.

The first thing the centre's pensioners had to do was to put in order the residential and production facilities. In spite of a lack of the necessary tools and materials, the residential quarters were put in some order within two months, and the production targets began to be arranged. At present the centre can accommodate 30 people and provide them with three hot meals a day and warmth in winter.

In addition to the repairs, the centre has worked in various directions to ensure its functioning and development. Firstly, it has to secure foodstuffs. It has arranged with the Turovo collective farm to send out teams to work at the farm at a regular basis. As a payment the centre obtains potato, cabbage, beat and carrot. This makes it possible for the centre to meet fully its need for vegetables. The centre has already stored vegetables worth of 6-7 million rubles. Similar agreements have been negotiated with other enterprises in the region, yet the problem of groats, meat and fish supplies remains.

Construction materials will be secured through pensioners' work for various construction companies. Five people have started to work at a power-saw bench, sorting saw-timber and producing cottages. The average value of the work performed is about 2,5 million rubles a month. This is enough to buy material for the current repairs of the centre's facilities. Another team of 6 people has begun working for a timber mill. The proceeds are planned to be used to buy timber for building a subsidiary and a bath-house.

The centre has launched its own production sectors. At present a car mechanic and metal workshop provides maintenance of the centre's bus and repair of an UAZ-496 car which had been passed to the centre broken down. At the same time, the metal workshop has started to install tyre-assembling and painting equipment. In addition, it has executed orders for welding and metal work. If developed, the sector will become a profitable service station to provide a stable income enabling the centre to fulfil its social tasks.

The joiner's of the centre, which has been equipped only for about 40%, has still managed to meet its need for joinery. If equipped with all the necessary tools, it will be able already in the coming months to produce much demanded furniture completing parts, door and window blocks.

The centre has also started a radio repair and sewing shops. They have worked so far to service the centre itself, but it is hoped that they will grow into profitable works as well.

Thus, despite its yet short life, the Lestvitsa centre has brought forth visible fruits. With its 12 people initially and 26 people now starting actually from scratch, the centre has reached the 15%-level of self-sufficiency in all its production and consumption sectors, and this rate is steadily growing. If this tendency persists, the centre will soon, hopefully, be 100%-self-sufficient.

Still, at the initial stage of its realisation the idea of the centre's self-sufficiency needs material support. The centre needs, in particular, funds to pay the staff who ensure its functioning, including managers, a lawyer, a medical worker, and others. It is necessary to equip the workshops and to continue repairing the buildings so that they could accommodate more pensioners. Therefore, we appeal to all society for help. The Lestvitsa Adaptation and Rehabilitation Centre is a first step. It is the first social institution of a new type. Let us then accomplish it together. This idea must be unsinkable in its vitality. Indeed, the core of the centre's work is to restore a human person as a full-fledged member of society who has found oneself after terrible hardships and who can overcome the adversities of material being.

If the world around us is cruel and severe, then eternal and merciful God teaches us to love our neighbours. Therefore, let us not be like Saltykov-Schedrin's character who said: "He is innocent, but is not recommended for mercy". Let us share others' misfortunes and help the weak. "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy" (Mt. 5:7)

A. Kozhemiakin
Telephone for contacts: (095) 465-2347

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An asylum at the Mytischi Church of Our Lady of Vladimir

The asylum at the Church of Our Lady of Vladimir at Mytischi near Moscow appeared in 1992 almost at the same time as the community itself did. Immediately after the church was opened, a soup-kitchen for the poor began working at it. Initially it was located at the heated garage. As the church was restored, a kitchen and two refectories were built, with one of them intended for the poor. About 500 people are fed in it daily. They are mostly jobless and homeless people without any identity papers. Among them there are both locals and refugees from other regions in Russia and republics of the former USSR who have lost their families and homes. At warm periods some of them stay at a sort of a camp set up by the homeless at the Reindeer Park nearby.

It is from this milieu of the poor and marginalized that inhabitants of our asylum came. Many of them eventually became workers at our church. At present there are 10 people living at the asylum. Among them are quite young and able-bodied people of 30-40 years of age. There are also old and disabled people. They have taken an active part in the restoration of the church, and a greater part of what we have today has been made by their hands.

They continue to work as much as they can to this day. They do everything: cooking, washing, cleaning, storing construction material. They do this work unpaid.

In the morning and in the evening the asylum dwellers gather in the church for morning and evening prayers. Those who are unable to come to the church pray in their rooms.

People of different ages, they live in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and unanimity. This spiritual mood has been created and supported by praying together. In addition to common prayer, the asylum dwellers observe a special prayer rule of St. Seraphim of Sarov, praying quietly during their work, studies and rest.

Unfortunately, the asylum cannot accommodate more people at present. Yet the community seeks to use every opportunity to help the poor who come to the church. In addition to meals, many are given cloths donated by parishioners. The community maintains close co-operation with the Lestvitsa Adaptation and Rehabilitation Centre which has been opened this year by the Russian-American Brotherhood of St. Seraphim at Serpukhov near Moscow. The director of this centre is a former inhabitant of the asylum. Some of the Lestvitsa pensioners have been sent to the centre from our asylum.

It is too soon, of course, to boast success, but we are gratified by the fact that people of diverse social groups and different ages live at the Vladimir church asylum as a big and harmonious family.

Telephone for contacts: (095) 586-25-22

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A Charity at Sts Peter and Paul's

Merciful and charitable work belongs to the Church along with the preaching of the gospel, celebration of sacraments and rites. "What good is it", St. James asks, "if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (2:14-16). Remembering it in our everyday encounter with human needs, we have begun to do as much charitable work as we can since the opening of our parish in 1993.

Our parish is situated near the three railway stations in Moscow: Leningradsky, Yaroslavsky and Kazansky, and our parish attracts homeless people, refugees, former convicts released from prisons and people who simply got into trouble on their way to Moscow. They come for food, money to buy railway tickets and for warm cloths in winter. We have organised collection and distribution of clothing. Nobody would be let go without a slice of bread and sometimes money.

In March 1995, together with the Russian-American Brotherhood of St. Seraphim of Sarov, we organised a Charity Centre and elected Orthodox Ethiopian Nimrud its director. He and his colleagues set down to business without further ado. They began cooking lunches at the church's kitchen to take them to the railway stations and distribute them there among the needy. Hungry crowds begin to assembly at the distribution points early in the morning. At present a group of volunteers helping Nimrud can be seen in the afternoon three days a week near the Kazansky railway station, distributing hot food among the homeless. About 150 people would receive each a portion of freshly-cooked buckwheat porridge with meat or fish, a cup of coffee and some bread. Sometimes Father Stephen, rector of Sts Peter and Paul's, comes to say a prayer, to bless the food and to talk to these people.

Of course, we would like to do charitable work in not so a primitive form as we do now. In summer, when it is warm and dry, people can eat in the open, but when it rains or frost does not let you unbend your fingers, there is little delight either for distributors or receivers. Meanwhile, there is an excellent building standing next to our church. It was built in 1896 as an almshouse to fulfil the same mission as we do today, but under normal human conditions.

His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia asked the Moscow Mayor's Office to give this almshouse to our parish for organising charitable work in it. Without rejecting the patriarchal request, the Moscow Government nevertheless is not in haste to give the almshouse over to the parish. We are aware of the problems involved in settling out several dozens of families from this building, but we still believe that the presidential decree on giving back to the Church all her former buildings should be fulfilled.

Those who have got into trouble in this new life which has no room for those who are weak or have stumbled should be taken care of, not rejected. "So, then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all" (Gal. 5:10).

Archpriest Stephen Zhila
Rector of Sts Peter and Paul
Telephone for contacts: (095) 267-3309

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A first-hand story

How easy it is for one to fall low, to become a homeless trump, a drunkard... But how difficult it is to scramble out, to become simply a normal man. The more so that you have neither identity, nor roof, nor money, nor job.

Still you have something as a vagrant! You have an opportunity to sleep in attics and cells, in mud and cold, to beg or steal, to rummage about for food, to collect bottles. As you see, the option is not so big.

How to scramble out to stand on your feet? Who will help to do it? This is a question that disturbs every homeless one and vagrant, or at least most of them. But there are few positive answers to it.

In Summer 1995, seven vagrants met at one of the written-off houses in Malaya Ordynka Street. Oh, it was not the Splendid Seven at all! What brought them together were louse and dirtiness, hunger and sores, an opportunity to sleep under roof, and also to drink together. Vodka makes life seem easier: you drink and forget yourself - what else you need... You do not need to look after yourself; you do not feel as hungry as before; and you sleep better, wherever you are. There was, however, one more thing that brought us, seven miserable people, together. It was the desire to rise, to break with this life.

But where to begin? We were lucky to find something to base ourselves on; we have found a friend, teacher and rescuer.

It happened so that close to "our" place was Sts Martha and Mary's Convent of Charity. Its nurses, its mother superior, Maria Kriuchkova, and their spiritual director, Father Victor, became our friends and rescuers.

During our very first meeting when we came either to ask something or to give us an opportunity to work up, Maria made it a condition that we should not come in drunk, and quite suddenly offered us tinned goods, groat and other foodstuffs we needed so much and work.

Already the following morning we were engaged in sweeping the grounds - a trifling but still some work. And we were sober! So it was how it began. In the morning we would put the grounds of Sts Martha and Mary's in order, receive foodstuffs and disperse each in his own direction to come back sober again. Gradually we got accustomed to the convent's rules, and the attitude to us became different. First they talked to us unobtrusively about the meaning of life, bringing us closer to the understanding and acceptance of God and religion. We began ever more often to ask questions about faith and Jesus Christ. Involuntarily, without being aware of it, we began to change for the better. Ever more often we would come to Father Victor and were never refused a talk. Kind and thoughtful talks, sincere participation in solving our problems, answers to burning problems, readiness to help immediately - all this we received from the convent. And when Mother Mary dressed us up, we were really transformed. Now we looked like normal people, clean, fresh, our cloths ironed. We no longer started up people in the street, nor the police looked askance at us, nor detained us, using any pretext as they did before.

We found a few more permanent jobs. Indeed, a sober, well-nourished, normally clad person is more credible. The need arose to plan the future, and an opportunity was offered to restore our identity papers. We began to make important decisions.

I do not presume to say we became profound believers. What is correct to say, however, is that we have come closer to an understanding of God. It is correct to say that we have changed.

Two of us are now living and working in the Moscow Region; one of them got married. Another two have come back to their native villages in the Cheliabinsk Region and are also working. Another two have found themselves in Moscow; one of them even has opened his own business.

Thanks God there are such people on earth as Mother Maria and Father Victor! We thank them and bow before them. From our hearts we thank all the sisters of mercy at Sts Martha and Mary's Convent. Peace be to them! Peace be to all!

Anatoly Gavrilkin (the name changed)
Former vagrant, but now a normal man
Telephone for contacts: (095) 233-2728 (call after 18.00)

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