. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Homeless: New Attack, Old Issue

With temperatures in Moscow hovering around minus 20 degrees Celsius, the plight of the city's many homeless is particularly acute at this time of year. City authorities estimate the numbers of such people in the capital, inflated by a huge influx of migrants from many parts of the former Soviet Union, at up to 300,000.

It is an old problem. Even in the 1970s, long before the cracks were beginning to appear in the all-embracing and protective Soviet system, there were thousands of unregistered, jobless people in Moscow, many of whom were destitute. Late at night they could be seen flocking to the metro, hoping to find refuge in its warm corridors after the trains stopped running. In those days too, the city's many vytrezvitely, or sobering-up tanks, would be filled night after night with drunks who might well otherwise have perished outside in the cold. It was a far from perfect system, applied often with heartlessness and brutality, but there is no doubt that it saved lives.

But with the collapse of the old system and the freeing of prices four years ago, the problem ballooned as tens of thousands fell into the poverty trap. And rather than trying to keep pace with the rising numbers, the city authorities, themselves struggling against ever-decreasing resources, simply shrugged their shoulders to the inevitable and turned their backs on the problem. Last year, the last city vytrezvitel was closed down; non-violent drunks are now simply ignored by the police, sometimes to die in the snow.

In this context, one can only welcome this week's initiative by Mayor Yury Luzhkov to find ways to take the homeless off the streets, especially as it goes a great deal further than previous measures, under which vagrants and other so-called undesirables were simply taken outside the city during festive occasions or state visits.

The idea of the scheme is to eradicate the problem of homelessness by the end of the year, through provision of housing, jobs and residence permits. Quite how it will work in practice has yet to be seen; it would certainly be naive to expect any striking improvements in the situation in the near future.

It is also disquieting that the body in charge of implementing the measures will be the police, who in the past have shown little sympathy to the homeless or unregistered, all too often resorting to fists and boots, rather than advice and persuasion.

In the end, the only way the problem will be solved successfully will be through the general improvement of all people's lives. Only then, when people's priorities can go beyond the issue of mere survival, can attitudes change and the whole concept of community care develop. For now, that luxury is still beyond the horizon.