Life on the Streets

Vladimir began his day at 2 p.m. at Kursky Station. "I'm collecting money here," the teenager said, sitting at the stairs leading out to the platforms. "My friends are outside selling old magazines."

With their collected funds, Vladimir said, they will buy one meal, and use the remainder for butorphanol, an opiate analgesic that, at 50 rubles an ampule, is a cheap alternative to heroin. At night, they plan to return to sleep in an attic atop a building near the Timiryazevskaya metro station.

When asked why he left his family, also living in Moscow, Vladimir became withdrawn and would only say: "My friends are here."

Because of the mobile nature of street children, their number is hard to assess, said Justine Simons, a psychologist and project coordinator for the international medical organization Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, at a news conference in January. The Department of Social Population Protection in Moscow says the city has 4,142 children who are beznadzorniye, neglected, or besprizorniki, homeless. MSF, which has worked with them since 2003, estimates that there are about 2,000.

Fifty percent of the street children surveyed by MSF consume alcohol regularly; 77.8 percent smoke cigarettes; 27.4 percent inhale glue. About one-third use butorphanol, which is classified as a prescription drug but loosely regulated, and are freely able to purchase it at pharmacies.

The life of Moscow's street children has been well documented, with wide coverage and an exhibition of their photography called My Yest, or We Are, organized by MSF and Belgian photographer Jorge Dirkx in 2006. What have been less spoken of are the changes in the past five years.

Francoise Horowitz, president of Samusocial Moscow, an emergency and social assistance program for the homeless, said there had been a noticeable drop in the number of children on the street. Oleg Zykov, president of the No to Drugs and Alcohol organization, or NAN, agreed.

In a report published in February, however, MSF said 98 percent of Muscovites surveyed in mid-2006 disagreed that there had been an improvement in the child homelessness rate. But the report acknowledged that "over the past four or five years, more attention has been paid by the Russian state," and said that almost 6 billion rubles had been allocated to the federal child homeless and juvenile crime prevention program.

The mechanism of care in Moscow has become highly systematic: Police round up the street children and bring them to hospitals, where for one to two weeks they undergo examinations and receive medical care. They are then placed in priyuty, shelters that provide medical services, education and rehabilitation, and where children are received regardless of nationality and the legal documents they hold. Each child's length of stay depends on what rehabilitative measures are needed. Whenever possible, the child is returned directly to the family.

Priyuty are "optimal and effective," said Lyudmila Magaletskaya, head of Moscow's department for homeless and neglected children. In 2006, 3,000 children received social rehabilitation services in shelters, she said.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
More than one-quarter of street children surveyed in Moscow said they inhale glue.
But MSF said hospitalization, which is a mandatory step before placement in a priyut, discourages children from using state services. During hospitalization, they live behind barred windows and are disciplined with force.

The state system runs smoothly, Horowitz said, but it's unsuitable for children who are accustomed to a lack of order in their daily lives. Horowitz, the MSF and Zykov said that though the system had improved, it only deals with the results and not the root of the problem of child neglect and domestic abuse.

"The system mechanically removes children from the street and places them into hospitals and shelters," said Zykov by telephone. "It's not that there are fewer neglected children, it's that the problem is less obvious."

The focus, he said, should be at the family level; often, parents do not acknowledge that they have problems. He also argues for legislation to protect children's rights and a special court that answers specifically to children's issues. Zykov is currently pushing for a law to deal specifically with neglected children's issues, but after passing a first reading in February 2002, it has not seen any progress toward a second reading.

Horowitz, from France, said a more personal approach was needed. The first goal is to gain a child's trust, and to "make sure someone is worthy of that trust, it takes hours and hours," she said.

The long-term solutions seen by Samusocial and MSF as most effective are indicative of the problem's nature. Samusocial's first outreach team spent three to four months wandering Moscow's streets for several hours five to six times a week, until the children sought them out. In its program's most active phase, MSF sent two to three teams in four-hour shifts each day several times a week just to converse with street children and establish a rapport.

"This problem is here to stay," said Horowitz, "and that's why we'll continue to work.".