Moscow Deals with Homeless by Sending Them to Faraway Hometowns
By Rachel L. Swarns
MOSCOW -- Behind the iron gate, in a squat red-brick building with barred windows, Viktor Ryazanov sits imprisoned in Social Rehabilitation Center No.2.
He is allowed to shower once every 10 days. At night, his toilet is a chipped ceramic pot shared with nine other men. For nearly a month, he has been locked in a dingy cell. And soon Ryazanov, a 47-year-old Russian laborer, will be deported from this city against his will.
He is not a criminal. He is a homeless man.
In a measure condemned by human rights advocates and applauded by local citizens, this city has begun to deport thousands of homeless people, rousting them from railway stations and vegetable markets, detaining them for up to 30 days without charge and loading them onto trains to distant villages where they grew up or were last registered as permanent residents.
President Boris Yeltsin and Mayor Yuri Luzhkov have described the deportations as a potent weapon in the war on crime. But none of the 6,000 people deported so far have been charged with any wrongdoing, the police acknowledge.
Rather, the measure seems intended to clear the streets of poor Russians and immigrants from the former Soviet republics who have flooded the capital in a desperate, often futile, search for jobs and housing.
"We don't want our city to look like the streets of New York or the shantytowns of Latin America," Aleksandr V. Zolin, one of the mayor's legal advisers, said in an interview.
"We're not saying there should be an iron curtain separating Moscow from the rest of the country, but we don't need homeless vagrants or beggars here," he said.
The police in Moscow estimate that 20,000 people, one-fifth the number in New York City, are homeless in this city of eight million. In Moscow, with hardly any shelters, most live on the streets. The debate over how to deal with them reflects Russia's struggle to cope with a social ill that has spread since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The new, post-Communist Russian Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of movement and forbids detention without charge for more than 48 hours. And in the city's new policy, some rights advocates say they hear echoes of old Soviet decrees, which tried to close the capital to virtually all but the most politically connected newcomers.
"As a whole this contradicts our Constitution and our law," Vladimir A. Kartashkin, chairman of Yeltsin's Commission on Human Rights, said of the new policy. "This is a very serious issue."
Kartashkin said his commission would study the matter and present its findings to Yeltsin in a few months.
Undeterred by such criticism, city officials readily acknowledge that they are trying to close the city to the poor. "If people can afford to live here, they are welcome," Zolin said. "If they cannot, they should stay where they are. In our view, there is no freedom without financial means."
Luzhkov outlined the city's deportation policy seven weeks ago, after a decree from Yeltsin gave city officials broad power to detain and deport the homeless.
The deportations, which have cost the city about $4.5 million so far, help ease the strain on its already overwhelmed transportation and social service network and protect the public from disease, Zolin said. He scoffed at the idea that the measures might be unconstitutional.
"Their idea of freedom of movement is the freedom to sleep in the streets," Zolin said, "and what kind of freedom is that?"
Some of the deported have managed to come back, the police say. But outraged human rights advocates say they may still carry their complaints to Russia's highest court.
"This is terrifying," said Sergei A. Kovalyov, a human rights advocate who is also a member of Parliament. "We are all children of the Soviet era, the Stalin era. We have seen deportations before. We must raise our voices against this."
But on the bustling streets here, there is little sympathy for the beggars huddling in subway stations, the vagabonds lurching past gleaming new shops and the wrinkled women pleading for rubles.
Some are alcoholics, ex-convicts or prostitutes. Some are old people who were swindled out of their homes when real estate was privatized, or immigrants whose dreams of a better life in the big city have crashed around them.
There are few homeless children in Moscow, and none have been deported, the police say. Ninety-three percent of the people forced to leave the city have been men, mostly between the ages of 30 and 60.
"They are lazy bums who make begging a way of living," said Larisa, 47, an engineer who was hurrying home from work and would not give her last name. "I work hard to get by. Why don't they?"
But Ryazanov, the grizzled man imprisoned in Social Rehabilitation Center No. 2, which is run by the police, said deportation would worsen his already precarious situation.
"In Moscow at least I have a job," said Ryazanov, who loaded vegetables in a local market before he was detained. There is little work in Frolovo, the town in southern Russia where he grew up and where he will soon return, he said.
"There I have no job, no family, no home," he said. "There I will be homeless and a thief. How else will I survive without stealing for food?"
It is not that homelessness did not exist during Soviet times, although fewer people slept on the streets then. But Communist leaders prided themselves on their country's guarantee of employment and housing for all. Homeless people who threatened that image were considered criminals.
Article 209 of the Soviet criminal code defined vagrancy as a crime punishable by at least one year in prison, the police say. That law, along with others restricting movement from the provinces to the city, helped prevent the homeless from surfacing in large numbers here.
But with the collapse of Communism, those laws were abolished. And as tens of thousands of people poured into the capital, fleeing ethnic strife or seeking economic opportunity, city officials found themselves unprepared to deal with the growing population of street people.
Today, New York City has 25,000 government-provided shelter beds, a number that homeless advocates consider woefully inadequate. Moscow has 25.
"We need more shelters," said Vladimir L. Bychkovsky, who runs Social Rehabilitation Center No. 2. "We'd like to do more for these people, but we can't. We have to send them to the streets."
By the end of 1997, city officials hope to have more than 800 beds. But those will be reserved for the homeless from Moscow, who are detained but not deported.
Outsiders -- even Russians from other cities -- will continue to be shipped out unless they are granted permanent residency here, a privilege reserved for the very lucky or the very rich.
Temporary permits are available for vacations or studies or medical treatment. But the only people from outside who are allowed to live here permanently, city officials say, are those who can persuade a Muscovite to give up his or her home -- in effect swap residences -- or those who can afford to buy an apartment here, which cost anywhere from $10,000 to $150,000.
Human rights advocates say this, too, is unconstitutional. These requirements prevent most average Russians, who earn about $100 a month, from living legally in the nation's capital.
Without a permanent residency stamp in the internal passports that all Russians carry, most people are barred from finding on-the-books jobs, from renting government-subsidized apartments, from attending public schools and from receiving free, routine medical care, city officials say.
"Without this stamp, they're entitled to nothing," said Siobhan Keegan, an Irishwoman who is the medical coordinator of Doctors Without Borders, the international relief organization that treats the homeless here. "The lucky ones find temporary work. The rest, they beg."
Social Rehabilitation Center No.2, one of 12 detention centers, holds 100 people in 10 small cells that smell of unwashed bodies and steamed cabbage.
The homeless are detained and deported, but rarely rehabilitated, Bychkovsky said. The police buy tickets and load the prisoners on the train. Some accompany the homeless to their destinations. Others do not.
In either case, the homeless people usually return to a life without homes, without steady work and with dim prospects of finding either.
"We, the police, we can't solve this problem," Bychkovsky said. "Half the people we send out find their way back. Poor people will always come to Moscow, because it's easier for them to find jobs here."
Ryazanov came to Moscow and found off-the-books work in the vegetable markets. Rashid Safin of Nizhny Novgorod in central Russia and Viktor Sosnovsky from Ukraine found work building country houses. They slept in gardens, under bridges, in alleys before they were detained. Soon they will be sent home.
So they listened jealously as Vitaly Mladchenkov, 28, an ex-convict, told his story. He is from Moscow, so he can live legally in this city and is entitled to a shelter bed and subsidized housing.
But entitlements mean little these days. More than 20 million Russians wait on city lists for housing, officials say. Mladchenkov says he slept on the street for three years while he waited for an apartment. And since the city's 25-bed shelter is usually full, he doubts that he will find a spot there either.
"So when I get out of here," he asked, "where will I go?"
No one said anything, not the homeless men sitting next to him, nor the watchmen guarding the door.
Mladchenkov shrugged. He knew the answer. They all knew the answer. "I will live in the street again," he said matter-of-factly. "We will all live in the street again."