Working with Love's Bridge…
Love's Bridge is a fantastic grass roots organisation that strives to help the city’s poorest and most underprivileged young people. It concentrates on giving love, experience and support to those most vulnerable to slipping into a world of drugs and destitution on the streets.
Over the years, many of Love’s Bridge’s children and teenagers have worked extremely hard to become productive members of society and some now have families of their own. It was proof that even those from the most harrowing beginnings had a real chance to break out of the cycle of poverty. Unfortunately there were also many more who didn’t, or at least haven’t yet made it.
Love’s Bridge’s first project back in 2000 was to help feed those running around the streets, some as young as 6-7 years old. Many had escaped from orphanages, psychiatric institutions or just run away from a broken home. The influx in street orphans, or ‘Bezprizorniki’ (those who are not cared for) at the time had most probably coincided with the collapse of the Ruble in 1999. You can read about the history of street children in a study by Kelsey Hoppe here. It explains in great detail how homeless children in Russia is not a new problem, it was around just as prevalently during the Soviet times – it was just well hidden by creating a vast system of children’s homes, orphanages and prison camps, literally sweeping the problem out of view.
Many of these institutions still exist today and although some have greatly improved, they still remain the common resolution to young runaways and beggars found on the streets. It is still considered to be a mental issue if you are a drug user, a problem that is dealt with in the psychiatric hospitals. By locking children up and giving them sedatives – sometimes even electric shock treatment, it is seen as the only way to change their behaviour. It is little wonder that many ran away from these institutions, seeking company and refuge with other runaways on the streets.
This is where Love’s Bridge came in – by setting up a night shelter, they kept the children out of harm and giving them a more loved existence. It also ran a day centre where classes were run by volunteer teachers, a doctor gave advice and medical attention and trips away were organised in order to redirect their usual relapse into the vices on offer on the street.
By my first visit to the charity in 2006, a lot had changed. Their night shelter had been forced to close down as it had become illegal to provide a place to stay for minors and the city was threatening to take away it’s day centre due to it’s ideal spot for new businesses. The children who the charity had fed and provided shelter for overnight had grown into teenagers and as the economy had stabilised, less children were running away from home. This gave the charity a new focus – to work with social services and offer the poorest families extra support, education and recreational facilities to their children, away from the temptation of drugs and alcohol.
However it was the older teens who were still living on the streets who really caught my eye. Some of them had recently turned 18 and were no longer picked up off the street and bundled back to the orphanage – They were now considered homeless adults, something the government had little interest in.
In order to keep these rougher teens away from the children Love’s Bridge were trying to set an example to, their sister charity, Zashita was in charge of looking after them. Although it was now impossible to give them shelter, Zashita gave them the best they could offer.
Three times a week the shelter is open with access to a shower, washing machine, basic warm food, occasional visits from the charity doctor and classes run by volunteers. It also gave immediate support to anyone who built up the confidence to break free – to go to live in a church or rehab centre or by tracking down family members. Of the 9 or 10 regulars I met there, at least 4 had made a real attempt to break out of it but all had somehow been lured back and were either still homeless or had since died.