Sky news – UK news 24 based article.
The first thing that came to mind as we drove through an unyieldingly industrial part of Moscow was “how could anyone live here?”
We had been invited by a group of homeless people to see their ‘winter hideout’ – the spot where they hunkered down through the long and bitter Russian winter.
But it was difficult to imagine a secret hideout in a part of the city dominated by factories and distribution centres.
The second thought I had, as the wheels of our car slipped and spun in the heavy snow, was “how do they manage to survive at all?”
The temperature was plunging and it was snowing so hard, we could barely see where we were going.
Nonetheless, we saw two young men emerge from the roadside and beckon us towards a little wood, sandwiched between a several walled compounds. We followed the pair down a well-trodden path and wondered what we would find at the end.
Our trip to the city’s flip-side began a few days earlier, when we turned up at a shelter for the homeless run by a Christian charity called Miloserdiye. Their sanctuary was actually an all-weather tent with a series of outer buildings offering services like showers, haircuts and legal advice – and when we turned up, shortly after 9am, the place was full.
They are younger than they use to be,” said one of the organisers pointing to a dozen or so in the queue for warm clothes. “But we really don’t know why that is the case.”
We spoke to a 29-year-old called Vera, who was waiting for a new coat. She told us that her priority was getting through the night.
“Many people end up freezing to death because they get moved on from warm places. I know many who’ve died. As for me, I’m cold and hungry, as always.”
The Russian capital acts like a giant magnet, drawing in people across a region stretching from eastern Europe to Russia’s far east. Some have lost their jobs – others have fallen out with their family – but by the time the get to Moscow, the odds are stacked against them.
This country is now grappling with a serious economic crisis, prompted in large part by the fall in the price of its biggest export – oil. It’s estimated that 2.3 million Russians fell into poverty in the first nine months of 2015. Meanwhile, consumers grapple with rampant inflation and a sizeable decline in real wages.
There are those who care, including a British Phd student called Robert Collins, who has raised thousands of pounds for Miloserdiye by running marathons. Nonetheless, Mr Collins admits that there is a great deal more to do.
“My dream would be to get donations from wealthy Russian residents in London because the sort of charities and charitable giving we have in the west, is in its infancy here.”
It certainly is a big challenge. Some NGOs estimate that more than 100,000 are now living on the streets in Moscow – although local government officials say the true number is only a tenth of that.
Whatever the figure, homelessness represents a huge challenge to the government – and the people of Moscow.
The nature of that challenge was revealed in part when we reached the end of the path in the woods. The two men, called Alexie and Boris, disappeared down a sewer hole and into a claustrophobic concrete cave laced with huge heating pipes.
We followed them down and I can tell you that it was a pretty unpleasant experience.
For this troubled group however, who numbered some six or seven squeezed among the pipes, it was a place of safety in cold and unforgiving world.