Plight of Narva's homeless worsens

  • 2002-04-18
  • Sergei Stepanov

An elderly homeless woman died of apparent hypothermia on the doorstep of a Narva homeless shelter April 7 after shelter employees refused to let her in because they say she was drunk.

The death has renewed criticism of the city-funded shelter, the only one in the economically troubled city near the border with Russia, from the city's growing number of homeless people.

Andrei, 33, a homeless man who frequently stays at the shelter, was there in the early evening when a security guard refused to let the woman in.

"The security guard didn't let her in as she was a little drunk," he said.

Andrei said the unidentified woman was in her mid 50s.

"The lady could hardly walk, but not because of the alcohol," he said. "She had some kind of a leg problem."

The following morning Andrei saw a paramedic team at the shelter as he left and learned the woman had died.

"She was lying on the stairs outside," he said. "I was shocked."

Shelter director Sergei Nikolaev said he did not think the woman died because the security guard didn't let her in, though he offered no explanation of how she may have died.

Andrei said the nurse at the shelter should have helped the woman and persuaded the guard to let her in.

"That's what the Hippocratic oath is for," said Andrei.

A "no drunks" policy is common in Narva's hospitals and elsewhere, Nikolaev argues.

"Today none of the social welfare institutions accepts drunk people," he said, saying the woman drank regularly.

Nikolaev says the shelter sometimes admits drunk people who are not aggressive.

He did not comment on why the woman who died was not admitted.

Nikolaev said the problem of chronically drunk but otherwise healthy homeless people was a growing problem in Narva, which has a population of about 82,000.

The Soviet drunk tanks that used to house them are gone, he said, and hospitals will only accept them under emergency situations.

About 30 homeless people are currently living at the city dump and 200 others live on Narva's streets, according to government estimates.

About 10 people annually are found dead at the dump or on the street, according to police.

Social workers say they do what they can for the homeless but are short of funding.

Andrei said workers at the shelter took a group holiday last year, closing the shelter for more than a week and leaving its 120 residents with no place to live.

"This is not the way to treat street people," he said. "They (the employees) are social workers."

About 30 percent of those who regularly stay at the shelter have permanent jobs and valid residence permits, but fell behind in rent payments and lost their apartments.

The City Court of Narva has about 1,500 cases pending against people whose rent is overdue. Many could join the growing number of homeless people by next winter.

Andrei said more attention had to be paid to homeless people, drunk or not.

"Of course, the people who come to spend a night here (at the shelter) are to some extent the worst part of society, but still they are humans," he said.