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Homeless in Russia:
A visit with Valery Sokolov
by Jan Spence 

Valery Sokolov, journalist and President of the fledgling Nochlyazhka Charitable Foundation in St. Petersburg, tells about homelessness in Russia and his surprise at finding homelessness in the United States. 

Valery Sokolov was homeless in Russia for six years, from 1986 to 1992. Sometimes he slept in a railroad station and sometimes in the forest. For him, the most difficult part of homelessness was earning money to buy food. On some days he didn't eat at all.

Valery is now 28 years old and President of the Nochlyezhka (Night Shelter) Charitable Foundation in St Petersburg. He is also the Chief Editor of Na Dney, (The Depths), a monthly newspaper that deals with homelessness and other social issues, including the problems of pensioners and ex-prisoners. Valery says his mission is to return hope to the homeless and to show them that the world is not cruel. The Foundation is the only nongovernmental organization in Russia that is engaged in offering help to the homeless.

About 1,000 homeless people request aid every week at the Foundation, which offers free meals, clothing, and legal consultations. There is no night shelter available. Blueprints for the city's first night shelter have been drawn, but the project awaits funding. The Foundation is dependent on foreign donations, mostly from Germany, the United Kingdom and Denmark.

There are between 30,000 and 50,000 homeless people in St Petersburg. They are called bomzhi - having no fixed abode - the official status of those who lack the propiska - a stamp in the internal passport verifying an official place of residence. Without a residence permit, the homeless are deprived of employment, medical services and social welfare, and can be sent to prison for up to two years for "vagrancy, begging or leading a parasitic life."

The Municipal Mortuary reported 3,515 homeless deaths in St Petersburg in 1994. The bezrodniye, or social orphans, are buried with headstones bearing numbers instead of names and dates. St Petersburg has 250 beds for homeless children, but none for anyone else. In a report last year to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights, Valery clearly states: "The Russian Federation authorities pursue policies which can be defined as little other than latent genocide based on a social discrimination."

In 1996 the local government of St Petersburg gave Valery 20 million rubles - about $4,000 - as the first social contract for the homeless. "Mayor Sobchak has looked me in the eye," mentioned Valery, "and said, 'homelessness is the invention of the journalists.'"

When asked about similarities between homeless people in Russia and the US, Valery responded: "The eyes of the homeless, those who really need help, are the same eyes in any country - eyes that can see every door is closed to them."

"Crime is rampant," Valery said. "Russia has the most prisoners of any country in the world, more than 1.2 million. The US is second. After serving his sentence, a Russian prisoner is legally entitled to an apartment. But there is a shortage of apartments, and former prisoners have no place to live. So they commit more crimes and they're back in prison. They continue to return to prison 10 or 12 times."

Drugs are not as prevalent as in the US, but at least 60 per cent of the homeless in Russia are alcoholic. "Many are dying on the vodka," said Valery. "Vodka is cheap. Half a litre is only a little more than a dollar."

The Center for Citizen Initiatives-USA (CCI), a California-based nonprofit organization, has offered citizen exchanges with the former Soviet Union since 1983. They sponsored Valery Sokolov's first trip to the US, a month in San Francisco to participate in their training program for Russian nonprofit managers and interns.

It surprised Valery to see so many homeless people in the US. "This is a rich country, a high-tech country, and it's terrible to see hungry people here.

"I heard Clinton talk about the next century. He said: 'In 8 years, every child in the US will be able to read. In 12 years, every child will be able to use the Internet.' But I didn't hear him say that in the years ahead, no child, not one person in the US, would be hungry. He talked about the future, but didn't include the realities."

Valery's most memorable experiences in the US were the exchange of personal experiences with local activists, and participation in a demonstration against police brutality in San Francisco. "For me, it was very important. I couldn't demonstrate like this in Russia. If I demonstrated in Russia, the police would arrest me in a minute."

The CCI organization uses a popular quote from Margaret Mead on their literature, which could easily apply to Valery and his co-workers at the Nochlyezhka Foundation: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

(The programs of the Center for Citizen Initiatives-USA are aimed at empowering citizens, not government officials, to take responsibility for social change.)

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005