Surviving Russia's winter a grim triumph for homeless

Marina KORENEVA
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Russian NGO Nochlezhka, or night shelter, is one of the few to help Saint Petersburg's homeless, who are especially vulnerable in freezing temperatures

As the fierce winter drags towards an end in Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg, Eduard Okuniyev is counting himself lucky to still be alive.

For six years he has been living rough on the streets of the country's former imperial capital and says he can never be sure he is going to make it through the deep freeze.

"How can you survive on the street when it's minus 25? It's impossible without the help of good people," said the 43-year-old, who ended up homeless after a family dispute.

Winds blowing off the Baltic Sea and moisture in the air make the chill factor particularly bad in the city, even though its temperatures are still nowhere near as low as the country's Siberian hinterland.

Yet Saint Petersburg, like most of Russia's big cities, offers few places for homeless people to turn to for help during the long winter months, whether state-funded or private.

In the evenings, Okuniyev goes to a heated tent provided by Nochlezhka, or night shelter, one of the few NGOs to help people on the streets.

He spends the night in the tent in the city's north with some 20 other homeless people. Most are men, each carries a ground sheet to sleep on.

Early in the morning they drink tea to warm up before venturing back into the cold -- where the struggle to find a warm place to shelter begins again.

"I go to the railway station or else I look for a cellar or an attic, anywhere as long as I'm not outside," says Okuniyev, who still takes pride in his appearance despite his housing difficulties.

- Freeze to death -

There are no official statistics on the numbers of homeless who freeze to death each winter across Russia, but Nochlezhka's spokeswoman Vlada Gasnikova said that 1,122 homeless people died in Saint Petersburg in 2016, half of them in winter.

Some die of hypothermia, while others suffer complications from existing conditions. Another killer is cheap bootleg alcohol that can contain toxic substances.

Five times a week, Nochlezhka, which was founded in 1990, drives round in a minibus and hands out hot meals to more than 200 people in areas on the outskirts of the city.

Even in good weather Russia's homeless people find it very difficult to get access to medical care or find work and somewhere to live. The cold is an additional factor that makes survival less likely for them.

Nochlezhka gives 52 people the chance to sleep in the warm in its shelter. Its volunteers also help people with legal problems and in their search for work and accommodation.

"It's thanks to them that I replaced my passport," an essential form of ID used to access public services in Russia, said Okuniyev.

"Since then, I've had more confidence in myself and I feel more hope that my life will change."

But apart from the help of Nochlezhka, homeless people in Saint Petersburg have few sources of support.

The city authorities do run a shelter but it is only available for those who have the right documents and are officially registered, making it very difficult for most homeless people to access.

- 'Treated like animals' -

Like Okuniyev, four out of 10 homeless people are sleeping on the street due to family conflicts, Nochlezhka says.

Some one in five has been a victim of fraud. Almost 14 percent are ex-prisoners, while three percent are refugees.

"We're treated like animals," said 58-year-old Sergei Petrenko.

He sought help from Nochlezhka after being chased away from the attic where he had been sheltering.

"I'd spent two weeks there, I was quiet, I wasn't bothering anyone," lamented Petrenko, who says he once used to be an army officer.

"Then one of the building's residents threw me out onto the street."

He complains that city residents are cold and unsympathetic towards homeless people.

"'If you're on the street, then it's your own fault'," he said. "That's what most people think."

"There are good people of course. But most people don't want anything to do with us," he added bitterly.

He says that since he was reduced to living on the streets, any dreams he had for his life have been replaced by one goal: survival.

"What are my plans?" he asks. "To make it until the end of winter."