How to survive a Siberian winter with no home

Like many of Siberia's homeless, Alexei Vergunov (pictured below) survives freezing night-time temperatures of -30 degrees Celsius by sleeping under an industrial heating pipe for warmth.

Alexei Vergunov smokes a cigarette made from a torn piece of paper on December 26, 2020.

It's a perilous existence. Too far from the pipe and he could die of exposure to the cold. Too close and he could get severe burns without him noticing at first through the haze of hard alcohol that many drink to keep warm and dull reality.

A heated pipe runs through a forest in Omsk, Russia, photographed on December 13, 2019.

The 46-year-old has lived like this for more than 11 years.
"You sleep at night with your eyes closed but your ears open," he says.

Alexei Vergunov, Andrey, and Galiya have an alcoholic drink in Vergunov's shelter in Omsk on February 16, 2020.

He used to yearn for a chance to rebuild his life, but since his partner, Alyonka, died two years ago of liver cancer, he has lost the will. They had lived together near the train station.

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

Alexei Vergunov and Andrey, nicknamed Prizrachnyy Gonshchik ("Ghost Rider"), organize aluminum cans that they brought to a recycling center in exchange for payment on February 16, 2020.

Vergunov, who likes to call himself Lyokha the Beard, is one of 3,500 homeless people officially living rough in the city of Omsk, though the real figure is likely higher. He's one of the few who stop to chat and laugh with the city's home-dwellers.

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

A recycling-center employee looks out the window in Omsk on February 14, 2020.

His favourite time is night. Though at its coldest, the city and rubbish dump are quiet and he is free to roam in search of glass bottles and other recyclable items he can exchange for a small sum.

Omsk, which lies three time zones east of Moscow, has a night shelter for the homeless. But it's in a distant part of town and Vergunov doesn't sleep there as the local homeless won't let him earn his keep at the nearby rubbish dump on what they see as their patch.

Alexei Vergunov (center) has a meal with others during a charity event organized by Caritas in Omsk on December 26, 2019. Vergunov said he has learned to be on the lookout for ill-wishers. He once saved the life of his friend Alexander after a group of teenagers set him on fire.

A charity, Caritas, hands out food and clothes to help the city's homeless, although Vergunov has also learned to be on the lookout for ill-wishers. He once saved the life of his friend, Alexander, after a group of teenagers set him on fire.

A dog walks in the snow next to a power plant in Omsk, Russia, on January 16, 2020.

Sometimes misfortune and pain can nudge Omsk's homeless towards trying to change their lives.

Lyusya Stepanova, 44, sits in a rehabilitation facility in the village of Rozovka, Russia,on February 17, 2020.

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.

Lyusya Stepanova, 44, is considering trying to return to society after more than 27 years on the streets. She was hospitalised last month for three weeks with serious burns across her body after she fell asleep too close to the pipes where she was sheltering.

She is now in a rehabilitation centre 30 kilometres out of town in the village of Rozovka.

Yevgeny Korobov, 43, nicknamed Korobok ("Box"), who is homeless, sits in a makeshift shelter inside an underground pipe chamber in Omsk on January 23, 2020.

"I plan to go home, to mother," she said, though she recognises she cannot turn back the clock on 27 years on the street. "My childhood dreams were noble, but it's too late now, that boat has already sailed."

Sasha eats breakfast on a warm pipe on a cold morning in Omsk on January 29, 2020.