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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Street Children Disappear From Streets

MTAndrei, 13, Volodya, 13, and Masha, 12, doing their homework Monday in the Otradnoye shelter in northeast Moscow. All three were picked up by police at city train stations.
Where once there were hundreds of street children, Moscow's train stations are now strangely empty of any homeless people who look younger than 18.

"You won't find anyone here. The last of those that we could not nail ran away three weeks ago," said a police officer patrolling the grounds of Kazansky Station who refused to give his name.

No children were to be seen in recent tours of the Kursky and Kievsky stations either.

Some of the children who used to inhabit the train stations left their usual haunts and went into hiding after President Vladimir Putin scolded the government in mid-January for its failure to deal with the skyrocketing number of street children and ordered officials to get cracking.

Others, like 13-year-old Volodya Zhdakayev, were picked up by a newly motivated police force and taken to a shelter. As a result, Moscow's two shelters for children are now bursting at the seams.

Hardly ever full until last month, the Otradnoye shelter in northeast Moscow, financed by the city's social protection committee and designed to accommodate 80 children, now houses 130 children aged 3 to 16.

Like the 30 other children brought to the shelter over the past three weeks, Volodya was rounded up by police at a train station and spent a week in the hospital to make sure he was free of any contagious diseases. He was placed in the shelter on Friday, but like many others there, he has no plans to stay long.

"I will run away from here in any case. It is boring here and smoking is not allowed," Volodya said while doing homework in Russian, not something he does often since he does not normally go to school. Although he said he had no need for such Russian lessons, he was absorbed in his work and seemed terribly proud when the other children complimented him on his neat handwriting.

The shelter staff said Volodya has a mother and a propiska allowing him to live legally and go to school in Moscow, but he calls himself an orphan and says he prefers the free life he leads at Kievsky Station.

Unlike the other children brought to Otradnoye over the past three weeks, 12-year-old Masha Godyayeva has spent no time on the streets of the capital.

She ran away from her sister's house in the Vladimir region last month and took a train to Moscow. She said she had planned to take another one to Saratov, the region where her parents live, but was detained by police in Moscow as soon as she and a girlfriend got off the train Feb. 8.

"I was not going to roam around train stations. I just wanted to go back to my mom and dad. But the police caught us and put us behind bars before we even left the train station," Masha said. Her parents had sent her to help out her older sister two years ago.

The shelter has contacted Masha's sister, but no one has come to get her. Masha said she would go home only if her parents come for her.

Masha and Volodya are among some 30 children who live in a separate -- and locked -- wing of the shelter, reserved for children who have just arrived.

They are looked after by Olga Manukina, a former teacher who has worked at the shelter for two years. Manukina said the campaign to get children off the street will do little good if it fizzles out as other government campaigns have in the past.

"If it does not last for a year or two to teach those who like to run away that this is the way things are and will be, many children will be back on the street in a month after it ends. Our children even say things will get back to normal after these roundups end," Manukina said.

After Putin focused attention on the problem of homeless and runaway children, officials in various governmental agencies scurried into action, mostly drawing up plans and forming task forces.

The Labor Minister set up a hotline in Moscow on Feb. 1 for reporting cases of child abuse, neglect or homelessness. But in the first two weeks of its operation, hotline operators fielded only two calls reporting homeless children, who were then taken to one of the city's shelters, said Valentina Teryokhina, the Labor Ministry official in charge of the hotline.

Teryokhina defended the ministry's undertaking by saying the hotline operators have been doing administrative work to make arrangements for some of the children found on the street.

The Interior Ministry, whose officers technically are not allowed to pick up homeless children unless they have committed a crime, are now doing so anyway. And they have the backing of shelter workers and others, who say that no one else is equipped to do the job.

But even policemen patrolling the train stations acknowledge that most of the street children have simply gone into hiding and are waiting for the moment when officers go back to ignoring them as they did before the Putin-inspired campaign.

Lidia Ivanova, deputy director of the Otradnoye shelter, said the government needs to develop a comprehensive plan for addressing the causes of the problem. Little would be accomplished, she said, if street children are just driven out of sight or thrown into shelters and forgotten about.

"We are currently working in emergency circumstances, but I hope that this complicated problem will not be solved in the same [rushed] way," Ivanova said.

The Otradnoye shelter and another like it are the only two in Moscow that operate as rehabilitation centers, where psychologists work with the children and their relatives. Unlike regular shelters and orphanages, they accept children without documents or health certificates, and their doors are open 24 hours a day.

Teryokhina said there are 900 such shelters/rehabilitation centers in all of Russia, which she said is far too few.

No one knows exactly how many runaway and homeless children there are in Russia. The Prosecutor General's Office estimates there are as many as 3 million.