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MSF Launches Campaign to Prevent Winter Death Toll of Homeless on Moscow Streets
January 15, 2003
Each year in Moscow, hundreds of homeless people die of exposure in severe sub-zero temperatures. MSF has been working with the Moscow homeless for the past ten years, bringing essential medical care and advocating for improved services for those who have to suffer in the exposed conditions.
In Moscow on January 10, MSF launched a campaign to raise awareness and provide treatment for the thousands of homeless people living in severe winter conditions. Each winter, hundreds of homeless people, called "bomzh," die on the streets of Moscow. Thousands of others suffer illness, frostbite, or are permanently disabled from the exposure to temperatures that regularly fall below minus 30 degrees Celsius. No less than four people die on Moscow streets each and every winter day. So far over 210 people have died of exposure this winter alone.
The launch of the awareness campaign has been initiated with a letter to the mayor of Moscow asking for more direct action to be taken to care for the homeless. As part of the campaign, leaflets will be distributed to Muscovites telling them what to do when they come across a person in the streets who appears to be suffering from exposure. The advice is founded on a simple starting point: Call for an ambulance.
MSF has printed 10,000 leaflets that depict a "snowman" with the legs of a corpse sticking out of one end. The leaflet provides the address of hostels where people can find refuge during the winter.
This week, the campaign will be augmented by a bus parked at strategic locations throughout Moscow that will display the current temperature on one side and the number of people who have died of exposure so far this winter on the other side. In addition, there are two websites that provide essential information in Russian on the campaign and how to help. You can access the websites at www.coldness.ru and at www.msf-russia.ru.
Every year about 3,000 people in the city suffer from hypothermia and more than 200 of them freeze to death in the street. An equal number of people die in the first 24 hours after they have been hospitalized. Hundreds of people have become disabled due to the effects of exposure.
Over the past four winters 1,667 people have perished in Moscow from the cold. In October and November of 2002 there were 1,002 people who suffered from hypothermic traumas. Of these, 154 died (77 died in the street, 25 on their way to the hospitals in ambulance vehicles, and 52 in the city hospitals within the next 24 hours). According to official data, 90% of those dying from hypothermia are homeless.
In Moscow, there are no easily accessible and widely known warm shelters for the homeless. In the cold season, access to the metro and train station halls is closed. For more than 100,000 homeless living in the city, there are eight night shelters and hostels able to accommodate 1,500 people.
Since November 15, 2002, all night shelters in Moscow have been open to everybody.
In addition, this winter, anyone who applies for help should be able to get a place in a night shelter, including people without Moscow registration. The Moscow committee for the social protection of the population issued a resolution "to organize the accommodation for homeless citizens, including those from out-of-town, who happen to be in a situation that is threatening to their life and health."
This is a welcome improvement, but the information is not being widely dispersed, so the very people who would most benefit from access to these shelters are not aware of the changes. Nobody knows about it except those in charge of the social aid agencies. Despite the lack of visibility, Moscow authorities have heralded the changes and emphasize their concern for the homeless.
MSF has operated a program offering medical and social assistance to homeless persons in Moscow since 1992. MSF has provided more than 180,000 medical and 55,000 social consultations, organized the vaccination of more than 10,000 people, and assisted in the hospitalization of some 11,000 patients. The chief purpose of the MSF activities is to broaden access for the homeless in the health care system, as well as to assist the reintegration of the homeless into society.
MSF has repeatedly warned the Moscow authorities about the urgent necessity to provide shelters for the people who are living in the city's streets. MSF considers the indifference of the authorities and broad layers of the public to the daily plight of the homeless living in Moscow to be unacceptable. In winter, such an indifference turns out to be mortally dangerous.
By Petter Hveem
Tags: Russian Federation