Russia’s streets fill with homeless children

MOSCOW (AP) — When the authorities picked up Oleg and Sergei, the youngsters were sleeping in telephone booths with cardboard boxes for mattresses.
Wild-eyed and filthy, as snapshots taken by social workers show, the brothers had wandered the desolate streets of Moscow looking for handouts.
They weren’t alone. Thousands of children, abandoned or neglected, have been left to fend for themselves in a country where the changes of the past decade have plunged millions into poverty.
Months later, Oleg, 8, and Sergei, 9, live in a crowded but cheerful shelter where children are introduced to such social niceties as hygiene and table manners and share hugs with a director they call Papa.
But some experts worry it’s getting too late to save what they fear may be a lost generation of abandoned children. A new subculture is taking root in Russia’s biggest cities: children who have slipped through the cracks at a time of social upheaval and become homeless, beggars, glue-sniffers, con artists, even prostitutes.
Since being picked up, Oleg has run away from the shelter twice to return to the street life — where a few hours of panhandling can earn him the equivalent of $20 for new toys or treats. He returned to the shelter both times.
“Nobody knows how many kids are out there, but it seems to be a catastrophic situation,” says Sapar Koulyanov, director of On the Road to Home, a government-financed children’s shelter.
Under the authoritarian controls and guarantees of communism, there was no such problem as homeless children. Kids without families were whisked away to government orphanages. But the problem has exploded amid the economic crisis that followed the Soviet collapse.
Scruffy, nervous-looking children are visible at subway stations and markets around Moscow, sometimes even begging in the middle of busy intersections.
The Moscow Human Rights Research Center estimates 1 million children are homeless in Russia, although the problem is so new that the figure is little more than a guess.
Often they are the children of the unpaid or unemployed, driven into the streets by unbearable conditions at home — cruelty, heavy drinking or neglect by their parents.
Oleg, an impish boy with big ears and a crazy laugh, seemed like any other child as he assembled a model helicopter at his shelter. But his intense look hinted at a troubled past he wouldn’t discuss.
After Oleg and Sergei’s father died, the shelter director Koulyanov explained, their mother became an alcoholic and took to the streets.
“It’s good here,” said Sergei, the calmer brother, as kids whooped and raced around him. “You can get cold and hungry on the street.”
Their pal Maxim, 10, came from even grimmer conditions. When police burst into his family’s apartment on a drug raid last year they found his alcoholic parents living in squalor. Maxim and his younger sister were emaciated and barely able to talk.
“I have a lot of friends here,” lisped a beaming Maxim, whose speech is still labored because of fetal alcohol syndrome. “I just wish I had a mama here.”
Because of the government’s sparse financing for social needs, there are only about 15 shelters for young children in this city of 10 million people. Virtually all are packed beyond their capacity. At a Red Cross shelter in southern Moscow, children often sleep in offices or hallways.
“Quality time” for the youngsters hardly exists. The staff is undersized, under-qualified and badly paid, averaging only 300,000 rubles ($52) a month at Koulyanov’s shelter.
But these kids are the lucky ones. Most end up in huge children’s homes run by the government, where hundreds of children live in barracks lined with row upon row of beds.
A reporter’s requests to visit two of the big centers were rejected. One was under a typhoid quarantine.
Koulyanov describes conditions at the state shelters as alarmingly inhumane — often rampant with illness, delinquency and sexual aggression.
“You can put a psychologically sound child in one of those large homes and, for lack of attention, within three months he could be diagnosed as disturbed,” Koulyanov said.