Cold temperature claims 10 lives

  • 2000-12-07
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - Global warming is possibly one of the most serious environmental threats to this planet, but while solutions to this problem are discussed people are freezing to death in Riga.

So far this year eight men and two women have died of exposure. Half of the deaths were alcohol related.

Research at the State Forensic Medicine Center tells a horrifying story. Annually, between 160 and 170 people, mostly homeless, freeze to death in Riga. The record high was in 1994 when 218 people lost their lives to the cold.

Director of the social assistance department at the Ministry of Welfare, Sandra Baltina, said Latvian law holds municipalities responsible for people in need of social assistance, but she is not too impressed with Riga City Council's work.

"I think Riga City Council needs to think more about homeless people," Baltina said. "There are not enough beds for homeless people in the shelters."

At the moment there are two shelters in Riga. One of them provides 20 beds for women and the other offers 50 beds for men. The City Council is planning to build a new shelter with 200 beds.

"Presently we try to fit as many as possible in the existing shelters," said Irena Berzina, spokeswoman for Riga City Council's welfare department. "There are social workers at the shelters who explain to the homeless about their rights and possibilities to get social help."

The City Council's department of welfare is currently working on different regulations to help homeless people.

"We understand that there's a problem, and we help people to pay off their debts," Berzina said. "We know the problem for the state will be bigger in the future if we don't act now, and it will cost the state more money in the long run.

"These regulations will help people who have lost their homes to renew their contracts in order for them to keep their homes," she continued. "Most people who are homeless in Riga are people who were socially unprotected and not able to pay their rent."

The social assistance budget at the City Council is 9.6 million lats ($15.7 million) of which 5.5 million lats is paid out to people living below the poverty line.

Maruta Pavasare, head of the City Council's social assistance department, said the social assistance program is based on income and that there are many different levels of income, and there are several different criteria which have to be met.

"The minimum cost of living in Riga is 83.13 lats," Pavasare said. "This sum is a national estimate reached by the Central Statistics Bureau, and it has set the standard for Riga City Council."

There are several different poverty lines in Latvia, but the absolute minimum for a person who has paid for all living costs, including rent and all housing bills, is 21 lats. For families with children the line is drawn at 26 lats, and 34 lats for retired people without support from relatives.

"There are more than 300 people who have slept in shelters so far this year," Pavasare said. "Around 700 people have been evicted by the courts, but they don't necessarily live in the street. Still, there are 4,000 eviction cases awaiting trial."

According to data from the national weather service, the temperature is expected to drop below freezing around Dec. 11, maybe as low as minus 10 centigrades (around 14 Fahrenheit).

"Later in December, temperatures in Latvia could drop to minus 15 degrees centigrade," a spokeswoman for the national weather service said.