When social entrepreneur Daria Alexeyeva joined forces with a charity to open Moscow’s first free laundry for the homeless, the last thing she expected were accusations of profiteering. “We thought that we were bringing something (so special) to Moscow that the only reaction would be: ‘Wow, is this really happening here, in Russia?’,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Like any business, social enterprises want to make a profit but they are set apart by using that money to make a difference. The aim, she said, was to help vulnerable people who get little state or public support. But her experience shows the struggle social entrepreneurs can face in a country with scant experience of businesses that expressly set out to do social good.
Alexeyeva’s partner in the project, Nochlezhka charity, had launched a laundry in its home base of St. Petersburg. But in Moscow, the project got off on the wrong foot from the start. When adverts started to run in August to advertise the laundry’s imminent arrival in an ordinary Moscow district, residents called for a campaign to block it.
In worried Facebook posts, locals feared “dirty”, “contagious” and “antisocial” homeless people would spread tuberculosis, fleas and crime through their neighborhood. “After washing their clothes, the homeless may come to a children’s playground, and it will become a problem for those who live nearby and their children,” Ivan Polyakov, resident of the Savyolovsky, a quiet residential area in the north of Moscow, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Protests, public arguments, complaints and threats followed. In September, the confrontation peaked, when one local activist posted an anonymous “investigation” into Alexeyeva’s business, saying she only wanted to open the laundry so she could wash the clothes she sells in her own line of charity shops and so increase her personal profits. “The only person who needs the laundry is,” the post read. “She knows how to count her money … Washing her clothes in a charitable laundry is very profitable. If she sells more than one third of it – it’s a gold mine. The homeless are merely there for PR (public relations) and as a cover story.”
Alexeyeva says she would have ignored it if the post had not received several hundreds of shares in one day. “I started seeing it as a threat and decided to respond,” she said. “It is a weird place to be in – explaining myself after someone ‘exposed’ things I’ve been openly talking about.”