How to Survive a Siberian Winter with No Home

23 February 2020

Alexei Vergunov is a homeless man living in Omsk, Siberia, in northern Russia. He survives freezing nighttime temperatures of minus-30 degrees Celsius by sleeping under an industrial heating pipe for warmth.

It is a dangerous way to live. If he is too far from the pipe, he could die from the cold. If he is too close, he could get severe burns without knowing it.

The 46-year-old Vergunov has lived like this for more than 11 years.

Sasha, 49, nicknamed
Sasha, 49, nicknamed "Poltorashka" (a 1.5-liter beverage bottle) and Lyusya Stepanova, 44, both of whom are homeless, sit on a warm pipe with their dog, Bim, as they share a meal in Omsk on December 3, 2019.

He says, "You sleep at night with your eyes closed but your ears open."

He used to desire for a chance to rebuild his life. But his partner Alyonka died of liver cancer two years ago. Since then, he has lost the will to change his life. The couple had lived together near the city's train station.

Vergunov says, "I get through the day and that's it. If I found a woman like her, I could stop and try to return to society, but I can't find anyone like her."

Vergunov likes to call himself Lyokha the Beard. He is one of 3,500 homeless people officially living in the city of Omsk. But the real number of homeless is likely higher. He is one of the few who stop to talk and laugh with those who live in homes.

He likes to joke with them, saying, "It's you that's going to freeze in your apartment with three blankets, not me between the pipes."

His favorite time is night. The city is quiet, and he is free to search through waste areas for glass bottles and other objects. He can then exchange what he finds for a small amount of money at a recycling center.

Omsk does have a night shelter for the homeless. But it is in a distant part of town. Vergunov does not sleep there. The local homeless people in that area will not let him earn money at the nearby waste area. They see the area as their personal territory.

An aid group called Caritas gives out food and clothes to help the city's homeless. But Vergunov has also learned to be on the lookout for people who may be a threat. He once saved the life of his friend, Alexander, after a group of teenagers set him on fire.

Sometimes bad experiences and pain can push Omsk's homeless toward trying to return to society.

Lyusya Stepanova has spent more than 27 years on the streets. The 44-year-old was in the hospital for three weeks in January with serious burns across her body. She fell asleep too close to the pipes where she was sheltering.

Stepanova is now in a recovery center 30 kilometers away from Omsk.

She says, "I plan to go home, to mother. My childhood dreams were noble, but it's too late now, that boat has already sailed."

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Alexey Malgavko reported this story for the Reuters news service. Jonathan Evans adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

minus – adj. having a value that is below zero

blanket – n. a covering made of cloth that is used especially on a bed to keep you warm

recycling – adj. having to do with the processing of paper, glass, cans, etc. in order to regain or reuse materials

society – n. people in general thought of as living together in organized communities with shared laws, traditions, and values

noble – adj. having, showing, or coming from personal qualities that people admire such as honesty, generosity, courage, etc.