Tuesday, 25 September

Street people

"You know, many of us are complete scoundrels-we've committed a lot of sins. As for me, I'm destroyed and I have no way back. But there are people among us who can get out of this situation if you help them. I can see that they are struggling, resisting. But they can't go on for long. In the past, I tried to not cross that line, too, the line of remaining human, but I couldn't. Help them," a Yerevan homeless man named Rafo told us, the seventh time we met him.

They call themselves bomzh , which comes from the Russian abbreviation for "person without permanent domicile". Before independence they didn't exist in Armenia , and you never saw them in the streets of Yerevan . Today they are everywhere, especially around the garbage dumps near the city's bazaars, next to the refuse chutes of apartment buildings, in abandoned and rundown buildings, in basements, in pedestrian underpasses, anywhere leftover food, bottles, old clothes, and other things can be found.anywhere there is a bit of shelter from the cold.

No government agency or independent organization can say exactly how many homeless people there are in Armenia . They are not registered anywhere; their names are missing from any study determining the poverty line. When they die, they are buried by the undertakers' office of the Yerevan Municipality in an area of the Sovetashen Cemetery reserved for "the unclaimed".

The Ministry of Labor and Social Security has no division that deals with the homeless, according to their head of public relations, Hasmik Khachatryan. The Police Service has no special division concerned with the homeless, either, we were informed by their department of public relations and information, although there is a division that deals with homeless minors. And at the Yerevan Mayor's office, we were told by Anahit Yesayan that no one deals with these issues, except for the municipal undertakers.

In Moscow, where the number of homeless people has reached the hundreds of thousands, the international organization Medecins Sans Frontieres has opened a special emergency room for the homeless attached to their diagnostic center, where 20,000 homeless people have been treated to date. According to both experts and numerous articles in the Russian media, this treatment center has improved the sanitary and epidemiological situation in the Russian capital and reduced the spread of tuberculosis, hepatitis A, and sexually transmitted diseases among the population.

In Yerevan, there is no agency that seems to understand the connection between the homeless and the spread of these diseases. People who are ill linger around the market places, in the entrances of apartment buildings, in public parks. They sleep on benches where other people sit down to rest, where children play.

Why don't international organizations in Armenia deal with this problem? Because until the government of Armenia admits that this problem exists in the country, these organizations cannot implement projects connected to it. And so far, the government has refused to acknowledge that homeless people exist.

C ity officials in Yerevan don't see homelessness as a serious social problem, or as a threat. This is why there is no agency that deals with the homeless, and no one who can say how many homeless people there are in Yerevan . We met dozens of people who live on the streets ourselves. They told us they number from 500 to 1,000. And one homeless man, Robert Baghdasaryan, insisted: "There are thousands of people like us."

Aram, who lives near the Sasuntsi David Railway Station and who doesn't consider himself to be homeless (although he has no home), told us that there were 40 homeless people in his neighborhood alone.

There is nowhere in the capital where homeless people can go to spend the night. Twelve homeless people froze to death in the month of December alone. "Serzhik died right here where you're sitting now," a homeless man named Noro told us. Arsen and Toma died too. A homeless person from Karabakh who had fought in the Shahumian guerilla movement was found frozen to death 15 days ago near the GUM market.

It isn't possible to verify this information with any state agency, only with the homeless themselves. They named the people who had died, one by one. Most of the victims had been drunk-they had lain down outside and frozen to death. These people who, deprived of nearly everything, had struggled on so long, were finally defeated by the December cold.

But the government ignores their existence. When we tried to get information on the homeless from one state agency, the employee we talked to asked in surprise, "What kind of information on bomzhes could there be?"

The only governmental agency who responded to our recent article about a young wheelchair-bound beggar (See: Condemned by fate) was the police. The day after the article appeared, police officers came and took the disabled boy, Nver, and his friend Lyuto to the police station. They kept Lyuto for a day and made him sign a statement promising not to help Nver get to the city center anymore. (This was the only official reaction, and no organization in Armenia responded, either. However, Hetq would like to take this opportunity to thank John Dahlberg from San Francisco for sending $100 for Nver, and the French organization ASPA for providing Nver with a new wheelchair.)

Now, writing this piece, I am afraid the police will react in a similar way, and take these people in for questioning (or to keep them out of the city center for a while) or will even arrest them. Things like that have happened, although for the homeless, it might be preferable to sleeping on the streets. "We should be so lucky," one man told us. "We could get warm for a couple of days."

Sometimes the homeless are rounded up by the police. "We receive instructions from our bosses that during a certain period of time there should be no homeless people around, because some high-level guests are expected in the city," one sympathetic police officer told us. "So we have to take them out of town. If they are relatively clean, we keep them at the police station for a few days. Otherwise, we don't want to deal with them, they have thousands of diseases."

"Once I was taken to the police station and I had 18,000 drams (about $36) with me," 65-year-old Serozh said, laughing. "So I had to poop in my pants to avoid being searched. The policemen held their noses and drove me out."

These people living in the streets in the center of the city are of no concern to any one in power. I have spent days poring through piles of government documents and studies by NGO on reducing poverty, and have not come across one sentence about the homeless.

I spoke to officials from the Kentron district administration to find out who was dealing with the problems of the homeless in their district. The answer was no one.

On January 4, 2005 we tried to take four homeless people to a public bathhouse to get cleaned up. No one would let us in. An employee of one bathhouse on Abovyan Street explained: " Normal people and families come here. If they find out that homeless people have been here, we'll lose our customers. They might have diseases-how can we be sure?" We couldn't argue with that. At long last, a worker in the boiler room of a Yerevan swimming pool let the four people in for a wash.

Photos by Onnik Krikorian

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