[OPE] Latvia: Capitalism and Its Casualties

From: Gerald Levy <jerry_levy@verizon.net>
Date: Wed Jun 03 2009 - 19:08:21 EDT

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June 03, 2009

Latvia: Capitalism and Its Casualties

Kristina Rizga, for the Pulitzer Center
Images by Akim Aginsky, for the Pulizer Center

The deep-seated wrinkles on Dzintra Vorfolomejeva’s reddish face make her
look older than her 62 years. She sits underneath a small metal roof
structure built to provide cover for the garbage containers, here in the
Pardaugava District of Riga, with plastic bags around her containing what’s
left of her life: a couple of blankets, some soap, pillow and a hairbrush.
She found food in the midst of the garbage today -- a loaf of bread, smoked
fish and boiled eggs. She loves reading glossy magazines that are carefully
tucked under her blankets. From November to May, when temperatures in Latvia
hover between 40 and 3 degrees Fahrenheit, Vorfolomejeva stays at a homeless
shelter. But when the weather turns warm, she prefers sleeping outdoors near
her old apartment that is still vacant. “I like being close to my old
friends. I also take care of ducks in the creek here and have to feed my
cat-friends,” she laughs.

Vorfolomejeva has been homeless since 2004 when she was evicted from her
apartment for unpaid rent and utility bills. All of her life she worked as a
nurse. At the age of 52, she left her job to care for her ailing mother.
When her mother passed away two years later, she couldn’t get her job back,
or find a new one. Then her husband passed away and her last source of
income dried up.
Despite a decade of bad luck and homelessness, she tells stories of human
kindness. She points to a coffee thermos that a neighbor gave her. Another
neighbor allows her to take a warm shower in her apartment. Someone brought
her homemade jam. An old friend gives her small amounts of cash that she
uses for public transportation or soap. “These teenagers came up to me once
and said, ‘Let us know if you need protection from anyone.’ ... It’s really
not that bad,” she repeats often.
But underneath that brave and cheerful veneer, there lies a sense of shame.
“Thank God my husband is dead and can’t see me in a situation like this,”
she says, looking down at her feet. “My old neighbor shakes her head in
disbelief every time she comes to check on me.” For most of their lives
spent in the Soviet era, Vorfolomejeva and her elderly neighbors only heard
about the homeless in the Soviet propaganda as an example of the evils of
capitalism abroad.
Hard Times in Riga
As the seismic changes from Communism to Capitalism continue to sweep over
Eastern Europe, it is often older people like Vorfolomejeva who have the
hardest time finding or retaining jobs in the changing economy. As unpaid
bills pile up, the unemployed face the threat of eviction. People in their
fifties make up the largest share -- about 40 percent -- of all homeless in
Riga, according to the Latvian Department of Welfare. Now, as Latvia is
coping with the sharpest economic downturn in Europe and unemployment is at
11.3 percent, this age group is hit the hardest.
Look around downtown Riga today, and things still seem positively bright, at
least on the surface. Hotels shimmer with lights, most historic buildings
have been recently remodeled, and there seem to be more imported luxury cars
on the roads here than in Los Angeles. But drive 20 minutes in almost any
direction from downtown, and one sees fresh scars of the economic recession
developing on top of older ones caused by the legacy of the Soviet
Pardaugava’s district is one of many such areas bruised by the dramatic
political and economic changes of the past twenty years. This area is filled
with early 20th century wooden houses, along with typical Soviet-era
block-buildings that are a visual echo of public housing projects in urban
America. These multi-storied concrete or brick buildings scattered across
Latvia still house about one-third of the country’s population.
The most visible signs of prosperity since the collapse of the Soviet Union
are rows of Mercedes and BMWs parked in between these buildings, and new
window frames -- usually a sign that while the Soviet exterior is crumbling,
the interior of the apartment has been remodeled.
There is another, more subtle sign of the changing times in these
districts – a growing number of homeless shelters. Today, there are two
government soup kitchens and seven homeless shelters in Riga, housing more
than 2,000 people each year, according to the Latvian Department of Welfare.
The total number of homeless is probably significantly higher, because many
don’t know about the shelters or refuse to use them, living in abandoned
sheds instead. Nevertheless, the Welfare Department says that every year
since the ‘90s, the number of people at the homeless shelters has been

Since the economic downfall accelerated last October, Riga’s shelters and
soup kitchens saw a 10 percent increase in the numbers of their clients,
mostly due to the lack of jobs. In addition to high numbers of people in
their fifties, the shelters are reporting sharp increases among two new
groups: Men and women in their forties with education and significant
experience, who are considered easily employable, and young people under 30.
Shelters For the Elders
Every night about 140 men and 30 families line up at the Men’s and Family
Night Shelter in Latgale’s district. They get soup for dinner and can do
some reading or watch television before they retire in rooms that house
between 10 and 20 people. Only women with children are allowed to stay at
this shelter during the day, but the men can leave their belongings in the
rooms. Each neatly made up bed provides a glimpse into the lives of its
temporary inhabitants – a romance novel, an old radio, a travel coffee mug
from some business conference, a small suitcase from a bygone era.
Standing in the hallway on a recent day were five elderly men, waiting for
an appointment with a social worker. Like most elderly people in Latvia, the
men clearly take deep pride in their appearance and even in times of extreme
hardship, maintain an orderly, clean image. This cultural norm makes it hard
to identify most homeless in the streets. On the surface, these older men
don’t look like they are in dire straits, except for a few subtle signs --
old eyeglasses with one arm missing, a portable radio patched with duct
tape, thin body frames, a jacket with frayed edges and thinning fabric.
Dagnija Komarovska has been a social worker at this shelter since 2002 and
became its director in 2007. At 47, she is a natural leader beaming with
youthful energy and ideas. She looks exhausted, but talks rapidly, taking
short breaks to answer two different phones that ring incessantly. She is
coordinating the final touches on the first daycare center for middle-aged
and older homeless in Latvia.
Having lived most of her life under the Soviet system, she says she’s seen
very clearly how the dramatic economic changes of the past 20 years created
homelessness in Latvia: “In the Soviet era, the state took care of
everything. An individual knew that he will always have guaranteed work,
salary and an apartment. Then, almost overnight, it all collapses, in the
early ‘90s. Now, an individual has to fight for all of these things, and it
is still very hard for some people to adjust to it.”
Around 2002, Komarovska observed a distinct new wave of homeless people, the
result of a real estate bubble in Latvia that drove apartment prices sky
high. This fueled the rise of aggressive real estate speculators, who preyed
on unsuspecting older people who were unaware of the market prices or their
rights. They often sold their homes for a fraction of the market price and
eventually ended up homeless.
By 2004, a new group of homeless emerged – people who couldn’t cover the
high prices of rent and utilities, like Vorfolomajeva. “I saw people in
their ‘50s with two degrees in engineering, but no ability to use a
computer,” says Komarovska. “So the lack of new skills and their age really
disqualified them from a lot of jobs, even though unemployment was
decreasing during boom times.”
Since the global recession hit Latvia harder than any other European
country, causing an 18% GDP drop in the first quarter of this year,
Komarovksa is very concerned about the winter ahead. The Latvian government
is working to get a second loan from the International Monetary Fund, which
is demanding financial austerity and deep cuts to public services across the
board. With municipal elections scheduled for June 6, many in Latvia believe
that the government is holding off the announcements of the potentially most
painful and controversial news -- cutting pensions or social services to the
poor. There is also no discussion about what will happen to about 60,000
unemployed whose benefits are expected to run out this Fall.

So far, the government hasn’t made very deep cuts to the homeless shelters
or social workers. That’s good news for Komarovska and her team, as they are
preparing for more clients this winter. “Most of the cuts are directed at
the low-level, poor masses. It just doesn’t look to me like the top is
making any sacrifices, while they squeeze the bottom and ask us to make all
sorts of sacrifices. … This probably means more people at our shelters, but
we’ll do everything we can here to make sure all people get a bed and a
plate of warm soup.”
Across town, Dzintra Vorfolomajeva continues to rely on the kindness of
neighbors and strangers. The coming winter promises to be tougher than the
last one, and she will need all the kindness they can muster.

(Top Image) Dzintra Vorfolomejeva, 62, has been homeless since 2004.
(Middle) Dagnija Komarovska, the director of a homeless shelter in Riga,
talks to Ieva Gudele, 32, about her prospects of getting subsidized housing.
Gudele and her three daughters have been staying at this shelter for a few
(Bottom) Dzintra Vorfolomejeva.
Posted by Kristina Rizga on June 03, 2009 at 02:24 PM in Latvia: Coping with
Economic Collapse | Permalink TrackBack
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