A harsh winter - Homelessness in Russia in 2020 by Matt Peacock

This blog post was written by Matt Peacock after his 4-days journey to Russia to give presentations about the role of the arts and homelessness around the world.

Visiting Russia in the middle of winter calls for warm clothing – and although the winter of 2020 was mild in comparison to many, even with long johns, hat, gloves, scarf and thick coat, the cold is biting and cuts through you. It’s not surprising therefore that, according to Nochlezhka, the country’s oldest and biggest homeless agency, around 4,000 people died on the streets last year in St Petersburg and Moscow.

I am in those cities on the invitation of the British Council and UK Embassy to give presentations about With One Voice and arts and homelessness around the world as part of a UK/Russia programme of talks and co-operation. I am speaking at The Garage in Moscow, an imposing former restaurant from the Soviet era, now a glittering contemporary art gallery with a famous community programme that is currently focussing on refugees and deaf people. I will also give a speech at New Holland, a cultural quarter of St Petersburg which has its own radio station. I know how fortunate I am to get this invitation, so I want to capitalise by immersing myself as much as possible in homelessness (and hopefully, if there is any, arts projects in the homelessness sector).

The map of arts projects on With One Voice’s website is empty when it comes to Russia – we haven’t come across any so far. So, before I leave for Russia, I hit the internet for information. I come across a street paper in St Petersburg Put Domoi which hosted a football team which took part in the Homeless World Cup, but sadly I hear the paper folded recently. I find Caritas, the global catholic charity and there is a day centre in Moscow which put on an exhibition of artwork from the people using the centre 12 years ago – it doesn’t look like there has been anything since. I then find Nochlezhka, with the promising URL www.homeless.ru/en. Nochlezhka was founded in 1990 and have a 52-bed night shelter in St Petersburg, a free laundry, a food van, free appointments with groups of lawyers and employment pathways including a successful partnership with Hilton hotels which recently saw 6 people find employment.

The website has huge amounts of information on homelessness (I later find out why – the government produce very few stats and there is no street count anywhere in Russia). Nochlezhka is trying to gather data so that they can demonstrate the scale of the problem to the public. They have estimated that there are around 4 million homeless people in Russia including 50,000 in St Petersburg. Sadly, there are only 300 beds for people who are or have been homeless in St Petersburg and only 200 homeless services in the whole of Russia (compared with 2,000 in England). This is the largest country in the world with no fewer than 9 time zones and have a tenth of the homeless services than England – a country so small in comparison that it would fit in the gap between Moscow and St Petersburg.

Money doesn’t seem to be a problem – Russia is a rich country and this is particularly striking when walking through the centre of the main cities and witnessing the spectacular wealth – row upon row of high-end shops from Tiffany to Channel with Bentleys and Maybachs parked end to end outside.

I ask Daria Baybakova from the Moscow branch of Nochlezhka for more context on homelessness. She tells me that Nochlezhka tried to set up a 20-bed shelter in Moscow last year, but it was met by so much opposition locally, they couldn’t get it off the ground – and despite 80,000 Russians signing a petition in support. They are trying again this year and are more hopeful. She talks of NIMBY-ism and a constant struggle to get the wider public and the policy-makers to care enough of homelessness to accept that people need help. She says that the main cause of homelessness is due to people coming into the big cities to find work and then not having the right paperwork. Laws around having a local ‘resident stamp’ are strict for the whole population and if you can’t demonstrate you are from a city or area, or living there, you can’t work. The vast majority of homeless people are Russian with virtually no immigrants from other countries – because of rules about resident stamps, an estimate 14% of homeless people get any help.

It is a common myth that there was no homelessness in the former Soviet Union – the reality is that there was but it was a criminal offense to be homeless which meant people were not visible. I speak to Daria at length about public opinion and although I sense they are making headway, it’s slow progress. We talk about the Mayor and she asks whether a Mayor from the UK could write to the Mayor of Moscow. Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester once said he’d be happy to write to other Mayors so I tell her we’ll give it our best shot.

In Moscow I also meet Alina Shlyakskaya who was a playwright for an immersive theatrical and music production called ‘Untouchables’ in 2016. The piece was performed across St Petersburg and they want to restage it. It consists of the stories of homeless people from Nochlezhka who either recited their stories on stage or, if they preferred, professional actors did this. The homeless people were the only people in the entire production who were paid. Reviews in the press were positive and photos of the production are haunting with large, imposing projections and subdued lighting. Alina is now working on a project with teenage refugees from Russia, Germany and Turkey.

The next day, Sofia Osman from the British Council and I pick our way across frozen puddles as we enter the gates of Nochlezhka in St Petersburg. The atmosphere is friendly – there is a warm waiting room with hot tea and smiles from the residents – the touch-screen information point in the reception amusingly gets stuck on English when it is demonstrated to me. The night shelter has been painted in bright colours and there are floors devoted to legal and pastoral advice, a men’s floor (rooms for up to 12 people) and a woman’s floor. There is a small library which hosts a film night every week – next up is Star Wars which is going to be popular according to our guide, Alexandra Popova, Nochlezhka’s Fundraiser. She is the person who has spearheaded the employment programme and won a contract with Hilton and a second company to host paid work placements. They have completed their first intake which saw 6 out of 8 participants get full time jobs with Hilton. She tells us and that her next task is to convince some of the churches to open as nightshelters over the winter months (I make a mental note of introducing Glass Door to Daria when she visits the UK in April).

That evening before my speech at New Holland, I’m lucky enough to speak on the radio with Grigory Sverdlin the director of Nochlezhka. He’s a bit of a legend in the sector and the radio interviewer speaks very highly of him before he arrives. We talk about homelessness in Russia and the UK; co-production of services with people who are homeless; how to get the public more engaged in the homeless situation and the role of the arts and cultural organisations. He is warm, quiet, and steely – like his colleagues, he is someone who has fought the system, been knocked back and dusted himself off again. Last year Nochlezhka managed to get the city govt to convene a working group of homelessness and commit to a five-year funding plan for homelessness. They are also making headway with enabling homeless people to get resident stamps.

Grigory waits for me after my speech and tells me that he wants to start some arts provision at the shelter. Perhaps singing he says. If it happens it would be the first regular creative group for homeless people in the entire country. I leave Russia after just four days – I want to know more, meet more people. I am heartbroken by the scale of homelessness and the size of the voluntary sector meeting so much need – but at the same time I am heartened by the people I have met and the progress they are making against all odds.

With thanks to British Council and UK Embassy and UK-Russia Year of Music 2019.