How to help homeless people survive the pandemic

How to help homeless people survive the pandemic


In Moscow alone, more than 60 thousand people are living on the streets and unable to isolate at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

What support do homeless people need at this time and what are charities, businesses and the state doing or going to do to help them? This was discussed at the public talk “Self-Isolation without a home – how do the homeless survive quarantine and who is providing support?”

What problems do homeless people face during self-isolation?

Hunger is the principal problem, said Grigory Sverdlin, director of the charity Nochlezhka, during the talk.

“It is now very difficult for homeless people to find food. On the one hand, all public catering outlets have shut and previously many homeless people had been able to get hold of some food as they closed. On the other, the number of people in need has increased. There are those already on the streets because of the current economic crisis, but also others who live at home but are now having to visit our food banks” – said Sverdlin.

Dmitry Bilyk, head of the charity NebomZhivy added that they too had noticed an increase in the number of homeless people. Before the pandemic they would feed around 60, at most 80 people a day, now it is more than 100.

Another serious problem is hygiene. “Many shopping centres are closed and so there is no access to bathrooms, which is how homeless people had been able to wash themselves relatively comfortably” – said Pavel Aksenov, president of the charity SAMU Social Moskva.

Anna Ryl, Chairman of the Kazakhstan-based private foundation Korgau-Astana, highlighted difficulties in access to medical care: hospitals have been placed under quarantine and are inaccessible, yet the pre-medical care that public organisations provide is not sufficient.

Testing homeless people for coronavirus

Dmitry Bilyk recounted how Caritas, a service which helps the poor and seriously ill, has recently found a laboratory that has agreed to carry out coronavirus tests for the homeless at minimum cost. Some have already been tested.

Bilyk also noted that he was unaware of any cases of coronavirus amongst the homeless. Lyubov Strizhova, coordinator of volunteers at the charity Doctor Liza, added that there had been no coronavirus infections on their wards.

Pavel Aksenov however added that even if there are homeless people with coronavirus, NGOs will not be able to guarantee the same level of medical care compared to those who are better assimilated into society. “The health service is at its limit and homeless people have serious problems with documentation, which will only further complicate the situation. There is a real question mark over how much we will really be able to help if they test positively for the disease” – said Aksenov.

Valeria Pinigina, a medical worker at Doctor Liz also noted that charities did not have the resources to treat coronavirus.

“The homeless are struggling to survive because food outlets have closed. They are searching for places to sleep, and these are few and far between. They are competing with each other, which in turn leads to fights and injuries. We are seeing more patients with infected wounds, fractures and head traumas” – said Pingina.

How is business helping

Dmitry Bilyk described how hotels in Moscow are reserving rooms for the homeless, but only for 10 to 20 people. “There are conditions: you must have documentation, you cannot smoke, you must have tested negatively for coronavirus. This will have no tangible impact on the homeless population in any way, this is a single, limited act of assistance”, said the director of NebomZhivy.

Grigory Sverdlin said that the state could help in tackling the cost of beds in hostels. On the whole, in Sverdlin’s opinion, the private sector was now responding far more actively and efficiently than the state.

“We have a joint project with Yandex, who just yesterday donated tens of thousands of gloves, masks and hand sanitiser. Today we will deliver them to twenty organisations in Moscow and St Petersburg. I hope that this is the first batch of many. And that Nochlezhka in its capacity as a facilitator of Yandex’s resources and operations, will be able to supply charities throughout Russia”, said Sverdlin.

He also said that in Moscow, the bar Strelka is preparing three hundred dinners every night which are then distributed to the homeless, following an appeal from Nochlezhka. In St Petersburg, the Novaya Gollandiya chain of restaurants has for two weeks been preparing and delivering food to those in need who have been in touch with Nochlezhka through their advice line. Sverdlin described this work as “important action taken to fight against homelessness”.

How could city authorities help and how are they helping?

Pavel Aksenov said they had already had one case of a homeless person being fined for breaking lockdown restrictions. This is because legislation on self-isolation does not contain any specific measures relating to homeless people.

“We need just one paragraph in the next piece of emergency legislation saying that work to help the homeless should continue and outlining the requirements for organisations involved in doing so. <…> I asked for this level of clarity back in early March and there is still no response. I do not want to belittle the work that the city authorities have been doing, a lot is being done, but homeless people are still ignored” – said Aksenov.

Pavel Sklyanchuk, an expert with the All-Russia People’s Front, noted that we keep returning to a systemic problem of targeted state policy relating to the homeless. “We must resolve this absurd problem resulting from the legislation passed and how it relates to the homeless, particularly the violation of quarantine and wearing masks. Are we really going to have a situation where homeless people without masks are criminals?” – remarked Sklyanchuk.

He also said that the State Duma is considering a legislation on food sharing and a solution could be found immediately. “Retail chains can supply high quality food products to those who need it. Not just to the homeless, but also poor, large families”, – said Sklyanchuk.

“Today an order was issued by Deputy Prime Minister (Tatyana) Golikova relating to issues about which Nochlezhka has been lobbying for some time” – said Grigory Sverdlin, “It covers disinfecting public places for the homeless, creating additional beds in state provided shelters, and accommodating homeless people immediately, regardless of documentation”.

Dmitry Bilyk stated that the charitable organisation NebomZhivy had written to the Mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobyanin, requesting that campsites out of the city might be made available for the homeless.

“With the help of our colleagues, we could bring the homeless out of Moscow to camps in the outer Moscow region, where they would have access to accommodation, food and sanitary treatments. But unfortunately, this is not yet in our hands as we have received no response,” said Bilyk.

“The most significant support that the state provides is the creation of conditions in which we can work calmly and safely. We are currently in a situation where we have separate sources (public and private sector) of both financing and soft support which we can use in order to plan our work”, – concluded Aksenov.

Grigory Sverdlin added that in everyday life, the state alone provided a sufficient level of support by acting as a regulator. But when it comes to an emergency situation, when hundreds or even thousands of additional places must be created to accommodate those on the street who are unable to self-isolate, it is wrong to continue to place all the responsibility on state organisations.”

“In the vast majority of other countries, additional accommodation has been created in empty hostels and gyms. NGOs cannot implement this kind of project. The state must play a role partly in introducing regulations and partly in providing financing”, – he clarified.

How can everyone help

All the organisations present at the talk emphasised the need for regular donations, however small.

Nebom Zhivy is collecting dry food for the homeless. You can make a donation or order a food delivery that will be used by the charity on the delivery websites of Pyaterochka, Auchan and other retailers, or you can bring food parcels in person. The SAMU Social Moskva Foundation is taking medicine and other hygiene products. The Doctor Liza Foundation is also in need of food and hygiene products.

Cash donations can be made to support Nochlezhka and the Korgau-Astana foundation.

The talk “Self-Isolation without a home – how do the homeless survive quarantine and who provides support?” was organised by the social project Let’s Talk.


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