Interview with Jemma Baghdasaryan, head of the Department on Disabled and Elderly Issues of the Ministry of Labor and Social Issues
The Center for Social Assistance to Homeless People was established at Yerevan's Shelter #1 in 2006.
- How was the Center established?
- We had felt the need for it for a long time. But neither the Mayor's Office, nor the police or any other agency had (and still doesn't have) any statistics on the homeless people to enable us to decide how many people a shelter was needed for. Drawing on the experience of big cities we decided to open a shelter for 30 people inYerevan. The 2006 state budget allocated 87 million Drams (about $220,000) to implement the project. By last winter we had not gotten the money to repair the building and we just slightly renovated two rooms. Today the building is completely renovated, with all conveniences. The center's budget for this year is 30 million drams.
- Who stays in the shelter and how they are chosen and brought here?
- We have the task of solving the problems of homeless people over eighteen years old. There is a shelter for homeless under the age of eighteen in Zeitun operated by the Fund for Armenian Relief, which takes care of street children and young beggars. It doesn't matter whether the homeless person is disabled, a pensioner, refugee, or a person who just ended up on the street. In accordance with regulations set by the government, a person applies to a district social service and he or she is sent here from there. The applicant may come directly to the Center. In cases of emergency, the social service, the police or the center's employees transport the homeless people here. We accommodate them in the shelter, and find out what their problem is. One might say that 95% of them have no documents. We ask their names and are required to inform the regional police department of their names.
- What kind of assistance does the center offer?
- Within the first hours the newly arrived undergo a sanitary examination. Generally, their clothes are burnt and they are given new clothes. The center has baths, a doctor, a social worker, a lawyer, and a psychologist. We provide medical care in the center's polyclinic. If necessary we take them to hospitals. Last year, for example, one person was taken to the T.B. prevention center and it turned out he had tuberculosis. There are also patients with mental disorders or venereal diseases among the homeless. We also help them to apply for new documents. We inform the migration department about homeless refugees. The mentally ill are sent to mental hospitals. They are given three meals a day.
- How long can homeless people stay in the shelter?
- We decided to provide them with temporary shelter for up to sixty days. This period is also set by the Law on Social Security. We are not supposed to provide the homeless people with housing. Sometimes a person leaves the shelter after staying there for a few days. We have no right to keep them for 60 days. Everything is done on a voluntary basis. But if the sixty-day period is over, we are not going to send the out in this cold. People who have reached pension age and need care are transferred to special homes or hospitals; otherwise they stay in the center.
- Is there enough space?
- Space is the center's main problem. In the winter, of course, more people apply to the center. But our goal is for people not to have to stay on the street and we accommodate them and create the necessary conditions. In other words, if the center is designed for thirty people it doesn't mean that we turn down the thirty-first person. We put in additional beds. We are going to extend the service; we are thinking about opening similar centers in the provinces. One possibility is to apply to international organizations for assistance, and the other is to ask the government for additional funding.
- What else are you doing to solve homeless people's problems?
- Several days ago Deputy Chief of Police Hovhannes Varyan called a meeting dedicated to the problems of homeless people. Representatives from the Police, the Ministry of Labor and Social Issues, the Ministry of Education and Science, the Ministry of Health, and other agencies took part in it. Mr. Varyan instructed police officers to be more considerate towards the homeless and hospitals were instructed to accept the homeless people that turn to them. It was also decided to ask the government to include homeless people on the list of societal groups entitled to state-funded medical assistance. We also inform the public about our center. Last year we received support from the Investigative Journalists NGO, Father Mesrop Aramyan, and philanthropists from abroad. Mission Armenia NGO is also planning to open a small center for homeless people.