The made-up face of a young woman radiates artificial happiness, giving a half smile from beneath her eyelids loaded with blue shading. She clinches her fist as she speaks. Her unattended nails are also painted blue.
“I like the blue color. It seems to me that it will help my dreams to turn into reality. I don’t want much in this life, I want my own roof above my head and a job so I can raise my son,” says 33-year-old Karmen Stepanyan.
Karmen is one of the homeless people who found temporary shelter at one of the buildings of Yerevan’s boarding house N1. She was transferred here from the Abovyan anti-tuberculosis center where her three-month-old son Edmond was receiving treatment. Before that for five years she lived in the entrances to buildings, in public gardens. There are no homeless shelters for minors, so Karmen gave her baby to the children’s home in Nork temporarily.
The program “Lodgings for Homeless People” proposed by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs was approved by the government. On January 25, the first six homeless were brought to the boarding house.
“Our workers are continuing to search for them now in all possible places – in the dumps, in half-constructed buildings. It is not so easy to bring them here, and it is a purely psychological problem. They have a concern that their rights will be infringed upon or that they will not be able to leave that place anymore. Often friends who were brought to our place go to try and convince them to come,” says director of the boarding house David Shahbazyan.
Ruben Yeghyazaryan, 64, does not even remember when he began to spend the nights in the open air. He is a native of Gyumri, once he had a house, family, a job, today he has nothing.
“We come reluctantly, but we make sure that it is better here than outside,” he says.
In Armenia’s first shelter for homeless, residents take a bath, get new clothes, enter heated rooms and enjoy warm beds perhaps forgotten. They are given meals three times a day, and are under a doctor’s supervision 24 hours a day. Residents are subjected to medical examination and the sick are isolated. Two have already been transferred to the Abovyan anti-tuberculosis center.
Poghos, 40, does not want to go far from the kitchen, he has been captivated by the sweet smell of tolma. He counts minutes before he can enjoy it. Of other homeless who refused to come with him he says: “They didn’t come, because they were afraid to lose their place (where they set up temporary shelter on the street) after they leave here in two months.”
And he identifies a more pressing problem in getting people off the street: “They wouldn’t be able to go without alcohol, and here it is forbidden.”
Shahbazyan says that there is a large army of homeless people near the dump in Nubarashen who wouldn’t agree to listen to them.
According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, 89 million drams ($198,000) will be allocated from this year’s state budget for the shelter, which can accommodate 30 people. Each is allowed to stay two months.
So far, 28 homeless have taken refuge. TV coverage of the new shelter led to cases in which relatives saw family members and came to the shelter to take them.
Anahit Avagyan, of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs says that when funding is fully given the building will be totally renovated. The harsh winter forced them to receive people before proper conditions could be completed.
According to the program, homeless people get not only social and medical assistance, but also legal.
“Hardly any one of them has a passport, we try to prepare temporary documents for them. We will place elderly and disabled people in corresponding boarding houses,” says Shahbazyan.
And Avagyan says that providing people with shelter for two months is an accepted form throughout the world.
“Lodgings are not permanent and it is not even our problem. Our problem is to give temporary social assistance to people, and generally we think that the state must not undertake to maintain an able-bodied person, but must help him find a job,” he says. (The shelter also offers job assistance for those who are able to work.)
And Shahbazyan approaches the same issue with concern: “It is possible to find jobs for some, but will they want to work? That is the question.”