Inside a Kyiv homeless hostel with the frontline workers saving lives
Around three million people have fled their homes in Ukraine since Russia invaded the country, triggering a wave of homelessness. But what about the people who remain in the war zone? Liam Geraghty speaks to the brave frontline homelessness workers responding to the humanitarian crisis.
A woman facing an uncertain future after her apartment was hit by a Russian missile in the early hours of March 15. Image: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
The work of homelessness charity Pomogi Bezdomnomu saved the lives of five people in Kyiv during the last freezing winter – now, like everyone else in Ukraine, saving lives is a day-to-day necessity.
The small grassroots organisation, whose name translates in English from Ukrainian to Help the Homeless, celebrated its sixth birthday on February 20. Four days later Russian forces invaded Ukraine.
Olga Romenska, Pomogi Bezdomnomu’s co-founder, tells The Big Issue from Kyiv: “My first reaction to hearing about the invasion was deep confusion. My employer wrote that the office would not be open today. We knew that there had been multiple Russian troops near the border, and it was still hard to believe that this absurd war could really begin in the 21st century.”
Romenska originally decided she wanted to help people living on the streets of the Ukrainian capital six years ago and penned a social media post about it.
Marketing specialist Romenska expected “a lot of likes and nothing more”, but friends and colleagues responded, and they started offering food out to anyone who needed it. The first time they set up a soup kitchen, they were about to close up when a small queue of 20 people suddenly appeared.
After five years of paying to help people into accommodation, the charity opened its own hostel in November last year, providing shelter for 21 people through the winter.
By this February Romenska and her team were distributing hot lunches, medicines and anything else people needed to survive on the streets. The small queue of 20 people was now 10 times bigger. On a Saturday Pomogi Bezdomnomu fed about 200 people, and another 100 people every Monday.
On February 15 the charity gave one of the residents a job in helping to run the hostel. Now six years of work – and the lives of Romenska and the people she supports – are in jeopardy.
The hotel is still running with 14 people living there as Russian artillery continues to hit Kyiv and ground forces grow closer. But the vital life-saving work Pomogi Bezdomnomu does on the streets is on pause, as it is too dangerous to be outside in the war-torn city. This danger was underlined by reports that 10 people were killed in the northern city of Chernihiv while waiting in line for bread, according to the US Embassy in Kyiv.
“For the first time since our organisation was founded we had to stop distributing food the way we used to,” adds Romenska. “First, it is not clear how to do it safely under the conditions of a real war. Second, some of our volunteers evacuated their families. We did not stop working during the pandemic but we had to stop at that moment. This decision was very hard to make and I am really sorry that our guests are deprived of our support now.”
It is unknown how many people were homeless in Ukraine before Russian forces invaded the country. Estimates from NGOs including the Ukrainian Social Fund Partnership put the figure at around 200,000 in 2015, but even at the time that was considered an underestimate. As one of the poorest countries in Europe with an unemployment rate around 10 per cent and around 1.5 million people living below the poverty line, the likelihood is that figure was a lot higher.
But one thing is for certain, the conflict with Russia has driven even more people from their homes. The annexation of Crimea and the Donbas conflict in 2014 led to Ukraine becoming one of the countries with the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, with around 1.5 million losing their homes. Now the Russian invasion, so far, has seen around three million people flee Ukraine to find safety. It’s a humanitarian crisis both at home and abroad, and one that is forcing Romenska and her remaining colleagues to adapt.
“It is unfortunate that instead of working, developing and benefiting the most vulnerable, we have been forced to cut aid,” she adds. “Now we are trying to restructure the work so as to return this assistance at least to some extent. The immediate plans are to support the hostel and resume lunches for the homeless in some form. As we used to prepare hot lunches for the guests of the distribution, we also prepared them for the armed forces.”
Brave frontline workers for Depaul International are also running shelters in Odessa and Kharkiv, the latter the second-largest city in Ukraine, which has faced sustained bombing since the conflict began.
Father Vitaliy Novak, chair of the trustees for Depaul Ukraine, has been organising the response and driving trucks filled with vital aid around the country, despite danger lurking around every turn.
“Two weeks ago I was organising and working for homeless people in different cities of Ukraine. And now there is need across the whole of Ukraine and my life has changed completely,” says Father Novak.
“In this war time every human being needs first of all a secure place to live, first of all safety, first of all food, to have water to drink, medical care. Now this is just what we see for everybody who is in the cities who are still under bombing. They have all these needs every day, every hour and every second.
“We don’t have to learn something to take care of them. We just need to have resources.”
The resources Depaul does have are now centred on helping people who have been displaced by the conflict.
The charity is working to fund emergency heating centres and provide food and access to outreach workers to those living on the streets as the situation worsens and more people need their support every day.
Father Novak says: “We are trying to organise as much as possible to bring people, especially in the hot points in east Ukraine, to safety. There are thousands of people who are living underground in the metro underground in Kharkiv for a second week. We want to reach these people as much as possible.”
Depaul is also operating at the Slovakian border – around 500 miles from Kyiv – where more than 200,000 refugees have fled to safety.
But that wasn’t possible initially and led to long queues at the border, Juraj Barát, deputy director of Depaul Slovakia, tells The Big Issue.
“It was terrible for people with children – there were no toilets and we were lucky that it was not raining. It was freezing and still is freezing overnight, and people had to wait there,” he recalls.
“On the first day it was 10 or 12 hours waiting there, which was not very pleasant after a long, long journey to the border. People were afraid, for example, to go to the toilet or to get food because they didn’t want to lose their place.”
The situation meant that Depaul were forced to quickly switch from providing social homelessness services in Slovakia to offering humanitarian aid. That meant venturing into Ukraine to provide support with aid deliveries every couple of days.
Now Barát’s team is working on long-term solutions, too, including introducing Ukrainian refugees to the “Slovak version of Housing First”. Depaul has been developing the model offering housing alongside support during the pandemic. But Barát admits it is a difficult process compared to countries like Finland, where the model is established as the Slovak social system “is not ready to fully support people on the street”.
“People at Depaul are creative and open to do risky work. Working with homeless people, it has certain level of risk as well, so it is part of our job. It was not very hard to persuade people to go into Ukraine, we just asked who is willing and people raised their hands.
“We are a social service provider, not a humanitarian organisation, but we are transforming now,” says Barát. “We had to push a little bit aside our own services. We were under pressure after Covid, it was exhausting for us and we had just started to recover slightly and this happened. Now after weeks of war, we are recruiting new people and we are creating this new branch of humanitarian aid.
“We know these people personally. So for us, it was it was it was not a hard choice. We are happy to have done it.”
There is no telling how long the conflict in Ukraine will last.
But despite the horrors of war and the traumatic, gruelling work to help people, there is still defiance among people who have devoted their lives to helping others on the street. Ukraine’s spirit has not been broken.
“The heroes are the army and all the people who stay for Ukraine. They don’t want to give up. Everybody is now united and doing everything possible to protect our homeland,” says Father Novak. “We stand firm, keeping our homeless shelters and services going, taking it in turns to visit and staying safe so we can keep supporting people. It is more important than ever before. We will not leave until we have no other choice.”
It’s a message that Romaneska repeats from Kyiv. “We are absolutely confident that our armed forces are professional enough, our territorial defence forces are organised enough and we all are motivated enough to keep Ukraine independent and democratic and make the enemy forget its plans to invade our country.”