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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

They're Homeless For the Holidays

One of Russia's new freedoms is an ugly one, revealing the dark side of capitalism common in many Western countries: the right to be homeless.

About 100, 000 homeless people roam Moscow's streets, living in train stations, airports, abandoned buildings and underpasses, officials and humanitarian groups say.

The state is doing little about the problem. In Moscow, there is only one state-funded homeless shelter, for 12 people - in the former reception area of a psychiatric institute.

"We're just beginning to consider this", said Yelina Yulikova, director of homeless programs for the Ministry of Social Welfare. "We never had homeless people before. They were taken care of by the state".

Even so, Yulikova said the government will only help 30, 000 people, those considered "social outcasts". Other ministries, she said, should help the newly unemployed and refugees.

"Homelessness is one problem, and ethnic turmoil is another. We never thought there would be so many refugees", she said.

Under communism the right to be homeless did not exist, officially at least. Special Interior Ministry units roamed the streets, picking up homeless people and placing them in prison-like hostels.

While about 260, 000 people still live in such hostels, police stopped picking up homeless people in 1990, Yulikova said.

"It's all political. There is more freedom now", Yulikova said. "But there is more ethnic turmoil, unemployment and harsh situations within families. Many homeless people are not regular tramps but just people trying to get by".

Ex-convicts and former Soviet refugees make up the bulk of the homeless. In the past when convicts were released from jail, wardens arranged jobs and apartments for them. But with the current economic and political difficulties, directors of privatized industries are often declining to assist, so former prisoners find themselves on the street, Yulikova said.

The explosion in the number of homeless people has also been influenced by an influx of 460, 000 refugees from former Soviet republics, as well as 440, 000 unemployed and many more working at reduced, poverty-level incomes.

The government is planning to create night shelters in Moscow, Rostov, Krasnodar, St. Petersburg and Siberia by February, Yulikova said. But that will not help prevent people from freezing to death before then.

Interior Ministry officials refuse to say how many homeless people have frozen to death this year, but estimates range from a handful to 100 in Moscow alone.

An international humanitarian group, Medecins Sans Frontieres, is now working with the government to help homeless people in Moscow's train stations at night. Russian doctors at the train stations see between five to 60 people a night, and hospitalize about five a week, said Christophe Hambye, the group's administrator.

The program, with European Community funding, began last summer. The team includes four expatriates, eight Russian doctors and some support staff, Hambye said.

Many homeless suffer skin diseases, fleas and lice from not washing, Hambye added. Tuberculosis, cancer and ulcers are also common health problems, he said.

Recently, at Paveletsky station during the night, about 40 homeless people gathered around two doctors - from little girls in matching pink scarfs and mittens to destitute refugees with blood-stained, infected legs and feet and ragged thin jackets over bare chests.

Fyodorov Klatov, 45, said he had left his wife and was now roaming the streets. He limps painfully because of open sores on his legs. Crowds gathered to check out boxes of medicine sprawled on the floor, while a line of men like Klatov waited patiently for check-ups. Klatov's forlorn dog stands by.

Lyuda Bachodinaya, 8, and her friend, Alisa Scravarova, 10, were in better shape, holding hands as they ran up to hug and kiss the foreign nurse, Patricia Kormoss, and Jola Polanovska, a sociologist. The girls giggled, asked a reporter for money and peered at the sick,

"It's good here. I have lots of friends and I'm not afraid at all", Bachodinaya said.