By Emil Danielyan
Vartan is remarkably health-conscious for a man who has been homeless for almost 15 years. Every morning he jogs in a park and eats two raw eggs afterward. That, he says, is U.S. action movie icon Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recipe for fitness and good health.
“I haven’t taken any medicines for 15 years. No drugs at all,” says this 41-year-old former university graduate.
This seems more of a rebuke to Armenia’s government than bravado. Vartan’s sole contact with the government is periodical encounters with police officers who he says don’t like to see him and his friends live rough on the street.
“I sold my apartment, divorced my wife and now live on the street,” he says. “They must somehow take care of me. Instead, they come and beat me up. We are not their slaves, are we?”
Long-term homelessness seems to have dimmed the sense of time of Vartan’s Ukrainian-born girlfriend, Tatyana. She is not sure how old she is. She must be at least 46, Tatyana says smilingly.
The couple had accommodation only last winter when they rented a room with proceeds from the collection of empty bottles and scrap metal. Their usual “workplace” is the area around a small agricultural market in Yerevan’s northern Arabkir district. Traders there give them fruit, vegetables and even meat.
Homeless people like Vartan and Tatyana form the most underprivileged class of Armenians still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet command economy. Their number may not be large given the scale of poverty in the country. But its seems to have increased in recent years amid an accelerated economic growth that has done more to increase income disparities than to reduce poverty.
According to Eleonora Manandian, chairwoman of the New Armenia youth organization engaged in social work, prolonged misery is eroding Armenians’ traditionally strong family bonds that have cushioned post-Soviet hardship and curbed poverty-driven phenomena like homelessness, alcoholism and drug addiction.
“You may not see many homeless people on the streets, but the number of marginalized people keeps growing because social bonds are increasingly weakening,” she says. “That is, those people stop feeling themselves citizens, full-fledged members of the society. And there will come a moment when they find themselves outside that society.”
The social polarization is particularly eye-catching in Yerevan whose glitzy center filled with restaurants and luxury cars increasingly contrasts with rundown suburbs. Real estate prices in the downtown have skyrocketed since 2001, fueling a housing construction boom -- another indication of increased wealth.
Yet enormous contrasts can be found even here. Alla, a 47-year-old lone woman, has lived in a dry fountain pool of a public park flanked by apartment blocks for the past four years. She broke a hip joint last winter and can hardly walk.
“How do you think I manage to get by?” she asks. “It’s neighbors that support me. They bring me water and food. They are nice to me.”
Alla, who lost most of her relatives in the 1988 catastrophic earthquake in northern Armenian, says not a single government official has ever visited or offered here any assistance. In fact, neither Armenia’s Ministry of Social Affairs nor any other government agency has programs to help the homeless. An RFE/RL inquiry found that there are even no officials dealing with such people.
According to government statistics, the proportion of the population living below the official poverty line declined from almost 50 percent to 43 percent last year due to an almost 14 percent surge in Armenia’s Gross Domestic Product. The government says the robust growth continued into the first half of this year.
However, little suggests that it has improved the lot of 13 percent of Armenians that are officially considered to be living in “extreme poverty.” It is still not clear how they might benefit from the Armenian government’s poverty reduction program launched a year ago with the blessing of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The program envisages to bring the poverty rate to 19 percent by 2015 through job creation and increased public spending.
The government plans to spend $6 million in 2006 to provide families lacking adequate housing with new homes. Sources in the Western donor community say the modest scheme was recently narrowed to only Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan.
This is bad news for thousands of people huddling in former factory hostels that lack basic amenities such as running water and toilet. Many of them fit into the Western definition of homelessness.
This is particularly true for dozens of poor families squatting in a ramshackle building in the southern outskirts of Yerevan. Once dotted with big factories, the area is now an industrial graveyard. The three-story building which housed a factory school began to be inhabited last year.
Armenuhi Boyajian, a single mother, moved there with her four children this summer. The oldest of them, a 15-year-old boy, dropped out of school three years ago and is now the family’s main bread-winner because of his mother’s poor health. His three sisters are also not attending school at the moment because of their failure to submit health certificates from a local policlinic. Lying in her bed and grimacing with pain, Boyajian explains that she has no money to pay for the documents.
“They want 3,000 drams ($6) for that. When I tell them that I’m a single mother they say that it mattered only in Communist times,” she says.
Susanna Boyakhchian, another squatter, is slowly repairing the building’s former toilet and is preparing to move there with her disabled son and his wife. They used to live in their own apartment. It was confiscated in the late 1990s when he was imprisoned for a minor crime which his mother says he never committed. The family currently rents a room in a kindergarten near a market where this hefty middle-aged woman sells second-hand clothing to scrape a living.
Boyakhchian seethes with anger when asked what she thinks her government can do for them: “I don’t expect anything from this state because this state has ruined my life. I have been left on the street because of this state.”
(Photo by Onnik Krikorian, Hetq.am: The former factory school occupied by squatters.)