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The homeless: down and out in the USSR

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SOVIET officials have long boasted that there are no homeless people in the Soviet Union, thanks to a constitutional ``right to housing.'' To give the boast bite, Soviet newspapers and magazines often print photos of homeless people in the West. In fact, there are homeless people in the USSR. They can be found in abandoned houses, cellars, coal bins, and garbage dumps, around railway stations, or in special detention centers run by the uniformed police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). Here they are held for a month while their identities are checked and attempts are made to find them a job and a place to live. These attempts are seldom successful.

The Soviet homeless come from various backgrounds. Among the inmates of the detention center in Tashkent, a Soviet journalist encountered a proud husband who had walked out on his wife after he discovered she was cheating on him; a disillusioned engineer; a senile old woman who had gone out one day and forgotten her way home; and an insane young girl who imagined herself a deposed queen. A large number of the homeless are ex-convicts who took to the road after being denied residence permits in their native cities. Many are alcoholics who have trouble holding down jobs. They fall into the category of ``parasite'' - the term reserved for people who are not, in Soviet legal parlance, engaged in socially useful labor and are therefore liable to prosecution.

The official fiction that there are no homeless people in the USSR has fallen victim to glasnost. In May 1986, Literaturnaya Gazeta published an article about homeless people and vagrants in the Kazakh Republic. The author, Anatoly Sterlikov, did not estimate the number of homeless people in the USSR; he did say, however, that ``they have already begun to stand out against the background of contemporary life.''

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