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Armenia's Invisible Homeless

Government reluctant to come to terms with growing social problem.
By Karine Ter-Sahakian

In Armenia, the people without a roof over their heads officially do not exist, but a walk through the streets of Yerevan makes it clear that this is not the case. Nothing is likely to change soon as a new draft law that aims to help the invisible homeless is stuck awaiting government approval.


The first problem is that no one is keeping any records. "After the collapse of the USSR Armenia abolished the registration system (known as propiska in Russian)," explained Artak Vartazarian, press secretary of Armenia's interior ministry. "So we do not keep any records of people who have lost their apartments and ended up on the street. Whenever possible, we put old people in homes and children in children's homes."


The Yerevan mayor's office estimates unofficially that Yerevan has at least 500 homeless people. There are probably many more than that. These are mostly people who have ended up in severe socio-economic difficulties. People sell their apartments to raise money, move into a smaller one and then are forced to sell that one too. They live off loans and when that does not work, they either try to emigrate or end up on the street. Elderly people go to old-age homes.


Jemma Bagdasarian, who heads the department for invalids and the elderly in Armenia's social welfare ministry, said, "There are no officially registered homeless people in Armenia. But of course they do exist."


Her ministry has devised a draft programme of night shelters for them. However, the idea has not yet been cleared by the government, after which it needs to be approved by parliament.


According to Ruben Ovspeian of the Dashnaktsutiun Party, who are helping initiate the project, the programme is still awaiting the government's green light. The project envisages spending five dollars per person, providing them with shelter but no food. Until the number of homeless people is established, it is impossible to estimate how much it will cost.


"If we get financial support from the budget of the country, that's good, if not we will have to ask public and international organisations," said Bagdasarian.


Lack of state support has prompted some homeless to pool their resources and live together.


One such commune has set up in a long-defunct factory on the outskirts of Yerevan. Only two walls of the building are left.


A torn blanket, acting as a kind of screen, hangs between two trees behind which three men are snoring peacefully.An elderly woman potters about by the hearth,


"Various homeless people wander about with nowhere to live," said Susanna, a refugee from the war over Nagorny Karabakh. "I have a house in the Shaumian region (to the north of Karabakh, now in Azerbaijani hands). My relatives in Martakert (in Karabakh) invite me, but I don't go, no one needs me. It's better here, the people are decent, they always come and help."


Angela lost her husband in the Karabakh war, while her parents and children emigrated to the US. "I like it here, my beloved person is here and I don't need anything else," she said.


"In summer it's good, warm and dry, but I don't know what we will do when it gets colder. We spent last winter in an abandoned boiler-house, but now they're repairing it and they won't let us back."


"We have something like a commune here," said Arsen, Angela's friend, who was thrown out of his house by his wife. "Everything is shared: the household, money. Whoever can brings in food or clothes. But we don't owe anything to anybody and the state doesn't care about us. Poor people come to us and we take everyone in."


The homeless tend to earn their money by collecting empty bottles for return and by begging, which they do in the centre of Yerevan. They have heard about the new proposed night shelters but are sceptical about the programme. "No one has come to us from the mayor's office, no one takes an interest. But we'll survive somehow," said Angela.


As far as the mayor's office is concerned, these people aren't officially homeless anyway. "There are refugees, temporarily living in hostels, on their own, but there are no homeless (in the city)," Yerevan deputy mayor Vano Vardanian told IWPR.


Karine Ter-Saakian is a journalist with Respublika Armenia newspaper in Yerevan.


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