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article imageRare help gets Saint Petersburg homeless through winter

By Marina Koreneva (AFP)     Jan 17, 2015 in World

In his seven years spent living rough around Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg, Valera has lost his girlfriend and four fingers to the brutal winter weather.

But though freezing temperatures claim the lives of hundreds of homeless people in the city every year, Valera is convinced that he is going to survive this time round.

As winter deepens, Valera, 40, is benefiting from a rare initiative by a local charity providing those on the streets with a warm meal and bed for the night.

Every evening in a quiet neighbourhood on the edge of the Gulf of Finland, a group of homeless people huddle for warmth against the icy wind as they wait in front of a tent.

Just before 9:00 pm, a minibus arrives and volunteers from the charity Nochlezhka -- which translates as "Shelter" -- start doling out dinner and opening up the heated tent.

"I wait for this moment all day," Valera told AFP.

"The meal is good and the tent is warm."

Most people coming to the tent are slightly drunk, but the atmosphere remains calm as they quickly settle down in the warmth of the shelter.

"The homeless here really appreciate our help and in general they behave well," said Igor Antonov from Nochlezhka.

"We don't have to receive people if they are drunk but we do it all the same," he said.

"You can't kick a human being out in the middle of winter -- it is far too risky."

- Down but not out -

Homeless men are pictured on beds at a dosshouse in the Russia's second city of St. Petersburg ...
Homeless men are pictured on beds at a dosshouse in the Russia's second city of St. Petersburg, on January 13, 2015
Olga Maltseva, AFP/File

Antonov is acutely aware of the personal tragedies that have pushed the men and women he serves out into the snowy streets of Russia's northern former capital, as well as the risk of death they face there.

"Over 1,700 people died from the cold in Saint Petersburg last winter," he told AFP.

Hundreds more end up in hospital with either hypothermia or serious burns caused by the fires they light to try to keep themselves warm.

Four out of every 10 homeless people start living on the streets due to family disputes, and some 14 percent are former convicts, the charity's data shows. Three percent are refugees.

"In Russia it is very easy to find yourself out on the streets, but it is very difficult to get out of that situation," Antonov said. "We have very little social assistance."

According to official figures there are some 30,000 homeless people in Saint Petersburg, but charity workers estimate the real figure to be around double that.

Those who lack documents or are not registered as living in the city are de facto excluded from society, struggling to find work and claim pensions or medical help.

At the moment only four homeless centres are open across the city, and they can only take in some 120 people each at a time.

In a place where temperatures can drop down as low as -25 degrees Celsius (-13 degrees Fahrenheit), that means that without help from charities it becomes a struggle just to stay alive.

"Winter is the most difficult season for the homeless," Antonov said. "It is a time only to survive."

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