Inside St Petersburg’s New Night Shelter for the Homeless

(Photo credit: Erika Lundy)

A good night’s rest is now available for the homeless of St Petersburg, thanks to the efforts of Nochlezhka and their volunteers

The colors of the sunset cascade around a building surrounded by pavement. The front door is open, and inside a young man in a wheelchair is casually chatting with a volunteer. The room is dark and the lamp on the desk between them only illuminates their faces. The sound of their chuckling and quiet conversation is barely audible to the others resting on the cots behind them. Suddenly, the last rays of sunset leaking in are blocked by an adult male on the doorstep. His face is unshaven, his speech slurred and aggressive, and dried blood trails down from a wound above his left eye. A night shelter worker walks over and tells him quietly that he cannot stay the night because he is intoxicated.  As he turns to leave, the worker offers him a hot meal and a place to sit instead.

(The newly opened Nochlezhka night shelter. Photo credit: Erika Lundy)

We are at the new night shelter in St Petersburg, a facility instituted by the NGO Nochlezhka (literally in English: night shelter) for the homeless. Opened on July 15, 2019, the shelter is already packed with people looking for a good night’s rest. The facility offers an overnight stay, as well as showers, toilets, food, medical help, and a laundry room all year round. 

“Unfortunately, there are just 40 beds, and if we have a 41st person then, unfortunately, we have to refuse them,” said Daniel Kramorov, a coordinator of the volunteers at Nochlezhka.

There is no limit to how many nights the shelter can be used, as long as the guests don’t display any abrasive behavior or appear to be intoxicated.

Rafael and Stas, two young homeless men, are sitting under a nearby tree outside the night shelter, eating a hot meal. They both look extremely clean and are well-spoken. Rafael is 24 years old, wearing glasses and a blue sweater; he is from Orenburg, a city in southwest Russia, near the border with Kazakhstan. He says that financial problems forced him to the streets.

His companion Stas, just six years older than him, is a local of St Petersburg and until a few months ago, he still had his own apartment in the city, a job, and a regular life. He says trouble came to him one day when “black realtors” appeared at his front door, showing him paperwork he had never seen before. He was told he no longer owned his apartment and had to leave. Stas saw no way to fight the situation and so became homeless. He sought shelter at a worker’s house that promised to cover his subsistence, which however turned out to be limited to a bed and food. He left in search of work, but found himself homeless once again. Without a place to stay and having lost his personal documents, Stas ended up at Nochlezka where volunteers are at the moment trying to have his official documents restored.

The efforts that Nochlezhka will go to, in order to help the homeless of St Petersburg, can only be possible through the efforts of hundreds of volunteers who have helped the organization since it was first founded 29 years ago.

According to the 2018 Nochlezhka annual report, last year the organization was kept alive by 409 volunteers. In 2018, Nochlezhka had 52 partners, including non-profits, charities, and organizations that helped provide a wide range of services for the homeless, such as legal consultancy, social support, psychological services, and medical help. Its funding mainly comes from private donors and foreign funds that accounted for 43% and 26% of the budget last year.

(Photo credit: Erika Lundy)

Of all the opportunities Nochlezhka has to offer, one of the most successful services is the Night Bus, which hands out free food, hygiene products, some medical help (two days a week), and social assistance. A volunteer who frequently gives his time to the Night Bus, and was formerly homeless himself, is Dimitry (who asked not to mention his last name). With the help of Nochlezhka, he was able to change his life for the better. Today, Dimitry supports the organization that helped him, by giving his time to help others who are in the same situation as he once was.

Although no official statistics on the number of homeless people in St. Petersburg are available, Nochlezhka estimates that between 50,000 and 60,000 people in the city are actually living on the streets. According to the 2018 Nochlezhka report, the main reasons for becoming homeless are a mixture of family issues, joblessness, no property upon release from jail, alcohol or drug addiction, being victim to fraud or extortion, disease or injuries, and document problems.

At the core of the work of Nochlezhka is the idea that everybody needs to be given a second chance and a helping hand: “We really believe that the main idea behind our work is that we do not blame people,” states Kramorov.  “Everyone can make a mistake and if someone wants to get help, then it is the first step that is of foremost importance, and we should try to help everyone.”

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