It is a cold winter day, yet the sun shines over Yerevan. As he lays down his wares for the week, Valery Gevorgyan hopes people will wander into the city’s central Krchi Bazaar and feel like spending money.
“You may earn as low as 1,500 drams ($3.12) in a day, sometimes make no money at all,” notes the 55-year-old, who has been homeless for about six years. “On cold or rainy days, there are no customers, so I have to spend the savings that I have or ask to buy things on credit in shops.”
For Gevorgyan, the bazaar is more than a trading area. It is his (un)official residence. Having lost his private lodging, he, like many other people, ended up living in a much larger space -- in public. Whether a staircase, an underground passage or a bench in the park, it is space where rent is not required and that somehow welcomes those who have no other place to go.
Homelessness was one of the unintended consequences of Armenia’s post-Soviet era. Political instability, conflict, socio-economic hardship marked the 1990s and poverty skyrocketed. Factories stopped working, workers lost their jobs, many turned to alcohol, and, left with nothing, families disintegrated. As the USSR’s social-welfare nets disappeared, homeless people started appearing; mainly in the capital.
No statistics are available, but estimates put the number of people without a fixed residence in Yerevan at anywhere between 400 and 1,000. They mainly sleep in the subway’s underground passageways, on construction sites or under bridges. They live collecting scrap metal and glass bottles from the trash.
When luck helps them find useful objects -- an intact saucepan, a working toy, an undamaged suitcase -- they can sell them at markets like the Krchi (Rags) Bazaar. On a good day there, you can make up to 10,000 drams ($20.80), says Gevorgyan.
No public assistance is provided directly to homeless people, but the Armenian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs financially supports the Hans Christian Kofoed Fund, a Danish-Armenian charitable association which runs the only shelter in the country. The shelter can accommodate 108 people for up to three months. Some restrictions do exist: People with contagious diseases like hepatitis C, tuberculosis or skin conditions, for example, are not admitted.
Since 2011, the shelter has assisted over 1,000 people, according to its director, Shavarsh Khachatryan. “For about 700 of them, we managed to arrange their return to their families or [transfer to] nursing homes or find them a job to regain an independent life. [We also had] foreigners and we worked with their embassies to send [them] back to their home countries.”
In 2018, Khachatryan says, a center will be opened for homeless individuals with hepatitis C, mental disorders, tuberculosis, skin and venereal diseases. The shelter will work to provide these individuals with the documents they need to receive state-provided healthcare.
Nonetheless, despite the help it offers, not every homeless person sees the shelter as an option. Its strict rules -- a ban on alcohol, for instance -- can grate against some.
The few soup kitchens operating in Yerevan also are not an option for people like Gevorgyan, who try to buy food with the money they make by selling various items around town.
For such individuals, freedom is a key aspect of their lives. The lack of walls around them is not a limitation, they say.