Destigmatizing Homelessness in Russia
by NATALIA SMOLENTCEVA
Homelessness is a difficult issue to talk about in Russia. Society tends to overlook people on the streets, considering them responsible for their own misfortunes. In such circumstances, it is very hard for charities to raise empathy and consequently they struggle to secure adequate funding.
The charity fund “Nuzhna Pomosh” (Help is Needed) publishes a special magazine called Takie Dela (So it Goes) to fundraise different social campaigns to help orphans, refugees, political prisoners, people with mental illnesses and many others. Raising money is hard in general, but in some cases it is even harder: HIV positive sufferers and homeless people are among those who are “blamed for their problems”, as project producer, Galina Mosalova, puts it.
The aim of Takie Dela’s “special projects” department is to address these difficult topics and to contribute to the alter how the problem is perceived. Project “there once lived…” is a collection of five animated graphic obituaries for homeless people, telling the stories of how they ended up on the streets. The team nursed the idea of storytelling through an obituary format for about a year. Together with Friends on the Street Foundation, author Alexandra Koksharova collected stories of homeless people who passed away last year. Finally, the form of animated graphic novel emerged.
“It is connected, first of all, with the fact that there is not a lot of documented material about those people, we worked mostly with the memories of other homeless people and volunteers,” explains Galina. “Also it is easier to get the message across in the form of animation.”
Beautifully drawn by Polya Plavinskaya and animated by Viktoriya Spiryagina, the features reveal stories of five people of different ages and backgrounds:
Here is Lilya (31) who grew up in the orphanage and later became a victim of domestic violence | Like many others, Roman (40) came to Moscow for a job and got fired | Originally Tatar, Esma (76) had to leave Dushanbe where he had a two-room flat after the collapse of Soviet Union | Zhenya (43) fought in Nagorno-Karabakh and was one of the most famous homeless Youtube stars.
“For me the most illustrative story is that of old woman Raisa,” says Galina. “She was so ashamed of her situation that she could not even ask for help.” The stories chosen are simply the ones with more details, she says. It is hard to dig into the life of the homeless person: on the one hand there is no much information, on the other people are not so keen on sharing.
The Russian version of “there once lived…” project was published on 27 March 2017 during the launch of Day of the Homeless Person, an initiative set up in coordination with Takie Dela. On 10 October 2017, World Homeless Day, the English version of the project, was released.
“With the special projects like this we try to overcome our audience and get into the feeds of people who are far from social sphere and charity,” says Galina. According to her, more than half of the readers are new, not Takie Dela regulars.
The situation surrounding homeless people in Russia is alarming. In Moscow, with nearly 12 million inhabitants, there is only one official shelter for the homeless. “Shelters and hospitals are the radical measures,” says Galina. “There are other dangerous situations before: political changes, family disputes, frauds… We need to work with people before they find themselves on the edge of society.” Psychological and legal help in such moments is crucial. Several NGOs, among them St. Petersburg organisation Nochlezhka, are doing this very important job. To help these organisations get more help and support in the society it is important to destigmatize the topic. “there once lived…” is a powerful example of how this can be achieved.