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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

St. Pete Homeless Score Trip to Austria

For MTFrom left, Yury Kuzmin, Maxim Mastitsky, Andrei Li, Denis Chernoritsky, Sergei Levchuk, Temur Tursynbekov and Vitaly Shishkin.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Last week, Andrei Li was looking as he does every night for a place to sleep on the streets of St. Petersburg. The Sakhalin native survives by selling a newspaper for the homeless.

On Monday, he had a Schengen visa in his new passport and was walking around the streets of Graz, Austria, as a representative of Russia in the first Homeless World Cup.

Li and six other homeless men from St. Petersburg are on one of the 18 teams gathered in Graz for the weeklong tournament, which started in earnest Monday. The homeless team from Brazil is being tipped as the favorite, while South Africa is close behind.

The Homeless World Cup is organized by the Independent Network of Street Papers, which connects 50 papers from 27 countries, including The Big Issue in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Melbourne, Diagonal in Buenos Aires, Hecho en Chile in Santiago and Russia's Put Domoi in St. Petersburg.

"This is to show that bomzh, er, the homeless, are not always the stereotypic drunks but normal people who want to do something," Li said in an interview as his team prepared to leave for Austria on Sunday.

Arkady Tyurin, the editor of Put Domoi and the team's manager, said one local television reporter saw the team and asked why they looked so normal. Tyurin promptly replied, "Yes, they do look almost human."

Smartly dressed in tracksuits, the team looks like a regular soccer team. Only a closer look at some of their faces shows signs of their tough lives.

The players are people who have not given up and are trying to make a life for themselves, said Tyurin, who himself spent 2 1/2 years on the street. We want "to show that we are all people," he said.

Many months of preparation went into organizing the trip, starting with notices advertising for players in night shelters and later to articles in Put Domoi and the local media. Put Domoi is a smartly designed biweekly with a circulation of 6,000. St. Petersburg's homeless sell copies for 15 rubles (50 cents) and pocket half of the proceeds.

ISPN and Caritas, the Catholic agency for overseas aid and development, helped cover the costs for the flights to Austria and accommodations.

One of the reasons the team could travel was the huge help given by the St. Petersburg passport office, which ensured that the players got their documents despite not having any residency permits, Tyurin said.

"We were surprised that they helped us so much," he said.

Apart from Li, most of the Russian players have a place to sleep every night -- either with relatives or in rented rooms. But they all lack the residency permits, or propiskas, that give them the right to live in St. Petersburg and lead normal lives.

"You don't have medical insurance or the proper legal papers, and you feel that you could be thrown out at any minute," Tyruin said, who lived for seven years without a residency permit. "I had somewhere to stay, but I had to avoid catching the eye of the police."

The team members have very different stories as to how or why they became homeless. One said he was forced to sell his apartment after the 1998 economic crisis, another blamed family circumstances, while a third had to sell his communal room to pay off debts when he was released from jail.

"Each has their own story," Tyurin said. "They are a good representation of Russia."

Some players said they have traveled abroad before, but never to a World Cup.

"I'm going to represent Russia," player Denis Chernoritsky said. "It's amazing."

The players seemed quietly confident ahead of their departure, even though they have only trained together for three months.

Real Madrid trained the Spanish homeless side and Manchester United gave the British team a hand, but St. Petersburg's Zenit refused to help, said player Temir Yursynbekov, who lives in a hostel for former prisoners.

"We asked but didn't get anything," he said. "Some teams have had three years of training, and we've had only three months. ... [But] we will try."