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Moscow Deports Thousands Of Homeless

Behind the iron gate, in a squat red-brick building with barred windows, Viktor Ryazanov sits imprisoned in Social Rehabilitation Center No. 2.

He is allowed to shower once every 10 days. At night, his toilet is a chipped ceramic pot shared with nine other men. For nearly a month, he has been locked in a dingy cell. And soon Ryazanov, a 47-year-old Russian laborer, will be deported from this city against his will.

He is not a criminal. He is a homeless man.

In a measure condemned by human rights advocates and applauded by local citizens, this city has begun to deport thousands of homeless people, rousting them from railway stations and vegetable markets, detaining them for up to 30 days without charge and loading them onto trains to distant villages where they grew up or were last registered as permanent residents.

President Boris Yeltsin and Mayor Yuri Luzhkov describe the deportations as a potent weapon in the war on crime. But none of the 6,000 people deported have been charged with wrongdoing.

Rather, the measure seems intended to clear the streets of poor Russians and immigrants from the former Soviet republics who have flooded the capital in a desperate, often futile, search for jobs and housing.

“We don’t want our city to look like the streets of New York or the shantytowns of Latin America,” Aleksandr V. Zolin, one of the mayor’s legal advisers, said in an interview.

The police in Moscow estimate that 20,000 people, one-fifth the number in New York City, are homeless in this city of eight million. In Moscow, with hardly any shelters, most live on the streets.

The new, post-Communist Russian Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of movement and forbids detention without charge for more than 48 hours. And in the city’s new policy, some rights advocates say they hear echoes of old Soviet decrees, which tried to close the capital to virtually all but the most politically connected newcomers.

“As a whole this contradicts our Constitution and our law,” Vladimir A. Kartashkin, chairman of Yeltsin’s Commission on Human Rights, said of the new policy. “This is a very serious issue.”

Undeterred by such criticism, city officials readily acknowledge that they are trying to close the city to the poor. “If people can afford to live here, they are welcome,” Zolin said. “If they cannot, they should stay where they are.”

The deportations, which have cost the city about $4.5 million so far, help ease the strain on its already overwhelmed transportation and social service network and protect the public from disease, Zolin said. He scoffed at the idea that the measures might be unconstitutional.

“Their idea of freedom of movement is the freedom to sleep in the streets,” Zolin said, “and what kind of freedom is that?”

On the bustling streets here, there is little sympathy for the beggars huddling in subway stations, the vagabonds lurching past gleaming new shops and the wrinkled women pleading for rubles.

Some are alcoholics, ex-convicts or prostitutes. Some are old people who were swindled out of their homes when real estate was privatized, or immigrants whose dreams of a better life in the big city have crashed around them.

There are few homeless children in Moscow, and none have been deported, the police say. Ninety-three percent of the people forced to leave have been men, mostly between the ages of 30 and 60.

“They are lazy bums who make begging a way of living,” said Larisa, 47, an engineer who would not give her last name. “I work hard to get by. Why don’t they?”