KIEV, UKRAINE (CNN) -- The brutal winter across Europe is proving a severe test for emergency and relief services. At least 250 people have died from the cold, 135 in Ukraine alone. One emergency official in Ukraine says alcohol abuse has contributed to the high death toll there. The capital Kiev has more than 14,000 homeless people, whose living conditions make them the most vulnerable to the bitter cold.
When the thermometer hit minus 27 degrees Celsius last week, Lyuda got very frightened. Homeless and with a child to care for, she feared they would both freeze to death until she found a public heating center in a Kiev park. She says, "Schools were closed because of the freeze, and I had nowhere to take my daughter. I was scared. We first went to a train station to get warm, but we were kicked out. Thank God we found this heated tent."
But there were many Ukrainians who were not so lucky. At least 135 people are reported to have died because of freeze-related injuries within only a week.
Several thousand were hospitalized, and authorities have been on high alert, upgrading the weather conditions to "natural disaster" status. Alexander Khorunzhiv, Ministry for Emergencis spokesman says, "The situation is serious, but it is controllable. The Emergency Ministry has set up 3,200 heating centers nationwide. It's mostly the homeless and pensioners that have come here. In 10 days, more than 95,000 people turned up and they all received help."
The strong Siberian cyclone hit many countries on the continent, reaching as far as Italy. Of course, with such extreme conditions, Ukraine is not the only country to experience casualties. But why so many dead? Experts say the reason for that lies not in the climate, but rather in Kiev's social and economic policies, with more and more homeless people on the streets.
The majority of the deaths were in Eastern Ukraine, the region with the highest unemployment rate. Political analyst Sergey Taran says, "The government hasn't created any jobs, has no social programs, and doesn't replenish the state budget. More and more people are finding themselves on the streets. That's why there are so many dead because of the freeze. Heating centers help and will save some people's lives, but they won't solve the issue of deepening poverty."
Such a figure on a thermometer would not scare anybody in this part of the world. However, meteorologists say that they expect at least minus 30 degrees centigrade over the coming weekend. The already serious situation may become even more difficult with at least 85,000 homeless people roaming the streets of Ukraine's cities.