Whilst we in the UK are complaining about the topsy-turvy weather we’ve been experiencing of late – gales, floods, but extremely mild temperatures – spare a thought for the rough-sleepers of Moscow. In a couple of months the ‘snowdrops’ will become visible as the snow begins to thaw.
‘Snowdrops’ is the euphemism the Russians use for the frozen bodies of homeless people that are found in early spring, previously buried under piles of snow. There are, of course, many reasons why someone might freeze to death and become covered by snow, but most of the time it’s the fate of the homeless.
A report on the Sky News website says that statistics are hard to come by when it comes to homeless people in Moscow. The official number is around 6,000, but other organisations say it is many times that. Natalya Markova, from the Moscow charity Friends On The Street, said: “The last census says there are around 6,000 homeless in Moscow, but I think the real number is much higher.”
“The amount of deaths declined in general, but even still, every spring we order a memorial service for those who perished in winter in the cathedral. There are no less than 50-80 names on the commemoration list every year.”
Local authorities in Moscow do provide assistance to the homeless through the use of a mobile patrol service, which includes a few vehicles with paramedics driving around the city and taking those who are worst affected to shelters. But many homeless people refuse to go into government shelters because they complain of being mistreated.
Sky’s news producer in Moscow, Yulia Bragina, reports: “Warm places like the underground and shopping malls are out of bounds for them, so they end up hiding in basements, and sewage and central heating systems. There are other people living inside manholes around the area, we were told.”
Russia has gone through three economic crises since 1990. This current meltdown is the fourth, caused by the near-collapse of oil prices and sanctions. This turmoil is especially dangerous for the 4.4 million jobless people, who don’t have any social safety net.
City official Andrei Pentukhov believes the current crisis doesn’t really have an impact on the situation: “Whatever happens in the world, it doesn’t influence the amount of homeless people in Russia because alcohol abuse is the main reason why Russian people end up on the streets.”
However, Ms. Markova said the Friends On The Street charity is getting more and more calls asking for help, and more people, including pensioners and single parents, are using their soup kitchens.