Although this blog was meant to start in January 2012 there always seems to be something to post about before then. So with the New Year almost upon us, it’s perhaps only right to think about those less fortunate than ourselves. For example, although some things have changed for the better in Armenia since I’ve been here, poverty levels remain high, and for rough sleepers in the Armenian capital, known locally and somewhat derogatarily as bomzh, the situation is still very dire indeed.
My work on this issue first started with two journalists from Radio Free Europe in late 2004 before continuing with Hetq Online soon after. Then, for two successive winters, its editor, Edik Baghdasarian, and I scoured the streets of Yerevan looking for homeless people, spending days with them to first earn their trust before documenting their lives and telling their stories. Even if the Yerevan municipality refused to admit their existence, they weren’t hard to find and eventually the authorities had no choice but to own up to the problem.
Indeed, thanks to that work the government eventually built a shelter for the homeless in Yerevan, albeit in 2006. That was too late, however, for dozens of homeless people who literally died on the streets during the winter of 2004/2005. In fact, over 40 homeless people that we know about died that winter, buried in nameless graves on the outskirts of the city. And we were pretty much alone in the task, with requests for help from international organizations falling on deaf ears. In fact, only one, Medicine Sans Frontiers-France, took the time to take a break from their festive holidays to help.
The others obviously had ‘better’ things to do, especially with international donor money often dictating the ‘priorities’ of the day. In fact MSF’s assistance was vital for some of the homeless. Even when we called ambulances to deal with cases of burns and frostbite, for example, we had to wait patiently with the homeless while their drivers wasted time in the hope we’d leave so that they could too. And when they had no choice but to transport the homeless to hospital we had to literally tail them in order to make sure their ‘patients’ weren’t kicked out beforehand on the next available street corner.
Meanwhile, not only did hospitals not want to deal with them, but neither too did public transport and taxi drivers. Only one public bath would allow them to bathe too, and the response to the problem from the Diaspora was interesting as well. Of course, a few ethnic Armenians abroad contacted us with offers of assistance, and one benefactor even contributed to the construction of the shelter, but comments left online weren’t positive to say the least. Rather than support development in Armenia, many seemed more interested in covering up the country’s deficiencies instead.
True, the most extreme voices usually shout the loudest, drowning out any others or literally forcing them to remain silent, but nationalists can also be very ignorant. Some comments, for example, stereotyped the women as ‘crack whores’ and the men as ‘dead beats.’ Yet, in many cases most of the homeless were simply people who had no choice but to sell their homes years beforehand only to find themselves destitute in an economic climate that hadn’t improved much since. Others were veterans of the Karabakh war who had returned to a society they couldn’t reintegrate back into.
Indeed, psychological problems were common to nearly all the homeless we met, so when the Minister of Social Security said the shelter was finally ready, he turned us into social workers, tasked with convincing its intended beneficiaries to go there. We had no choice, especially when the Minister made it clear that he had no money to pay for petrol to transport the homeless to the shelter, let alone to provide psychological services.
Since then the situation has reportedly improved although I’m not entirely convinced it’s enough. Even if the shelter operates, for example, it’s too far out of town for most homeless to get to. Support would be better close to where the problem is, and in Yerevan that means the markets or anywhere where garbage can be found. Many, for example, would scour the trash for empty bottles which could be exchanged for cash. Yes, contrary to popular opinion, the homeless did not rely on handouts. They didn’t beg. They actually attempted to support themselves, although perhaps ‘survive’ is a better word.
With 2012 almost upon us, it would be nice to think that the problem of the homeless can be resolved, as the municipality has said it will be, but I can’t help but think that such promises will turn out to be merely empty words. Homelessness and rough sleeping is a significant problem in any society, and especially in a economically challenged country such as Armenia, where the authorities can hardly provide an adequate social safety net for its other citizens let alone for those that require long-term psychological care.
Moreover, experience has shown that even when large numbers died every winter, there were always more to replace them the next. Judging from the number of homeless people I see today in my area alone, I suspect that still remains to be the case.