Living on the Edge: Homeless in Yerevan

Author: Argam Yeranosyan

Edition: Spaces

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.

Sveta, a trained nurse, lives under the bridge by Yerevan’s central subway station of Barekamutyun (Friendship). After being laid off from work, she turned to peddling, collecting empty bottles for recycling and stale bread to sell to farmers for their cattle. She lives with her dog, Hyena, and the “kids,” as she calls Hyena’s puppies.
For the last nine years, Robert, 64, has been calling home an underground passageway in the Barekamutyun subway station. He has never been interested in moving to Yerevan’s homeless shelter. It reminds him of a prison and he says he has no friends there. He sees the residents as “former alcoholics” with whom he does not wish to associate.
Taciturn Davit Vardanyan shuns social interaction. Originally from the town of Etchmiadzin, the 35-year old has been living alongside Robert in Yerevan’s Barekamutyun subway station for over five years.
Forty-year-old Mariam has lived with the inhabitants of Yerevan’s Barekamutyun subway station since November 2017. After selling her apartment in the city, she moved to Nagorno Karabakh with her sister. However, after quarreling with her, she decided to move back to Yerevan. She receives occasional support from various religious associations.
Each weekend, vendors gather at the Krchi Bazaar near Yerevan’s central Vazgen Sargsyan stadium. Many homeless people live in the area.
Laundry hangs near the Krchi Bazaar. Homeless residents of the area wear clothes received from charities or found in trash containers. They wash themselves with water they heat on portable stoves or occasionally in public baths where they can shower.
Valery Gevorgyan (right) and his wife, Galina (left), an ethnic Russian, in the makeshift hut they share near the Krchi Bazaar. They met at the Hans Christian Kofoed shelter and when Galina’s three-month limit expired before his, Valery decided to follow her. They married in 2016. When not looking for food or things to sell, Galina dives into Russian literature, reading books by Mikhail Bulgakov, Anton Chekhov or Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Lena Nersisyan, 62, spends about half of every day collecting “goods” from the trash. She says she barely manages to earn enough for cigarettes from selling them on Sundays at the Krchi Bazaar.
Until the early 1990s, 55-year-old Valery Gevorgyan worked at an electronic factory. When that closed down, he struggled to make ends meet and started selling odds and ends in various markets in Yerevan. He says he has a family, but has had no contact with them for about six years.
When Samvel Srapionyan left jail in 2013 after serving a 15-year sentence for murder, he had nothing and no one. Now 56, he lives around Krchi Bazaar. Other homeless people there know him by his nickname “Prosch,” or “Lips” in Armenian. He got the name because he has big lips and one them is cut.
Emma Sahakyan, 80, spent her sixth winter this year in front of the presidential palace, near central Yerevan’s Baghramyan subway station. After her sister died in 2012, Sahakyan claims that she unfairly lost access to the residence registered in both sisters’ names. She has been demanding justice ever since outside of the presidential palace.
We are a non-profit media organization covering the topics and groups of people that are frequently ignored by mainstream media. Our work would not be possible without support from our community and readers like you. Your donations enable us to support journalists who cover underrepresented stories across the region.