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How the pandemic has changed the lives of homeless people in Ukraine

Since the start of COVID-19, homeless people’s access to food, healthcare, temporary housing and medical needs has become more limited. The consequences of quarantine have left many people in Ukraine without a roof over their heads for the first time in their lives.

Hanna Sokolova Pavlo Stekh
21 September 2020
A charity organisation helps homeless people in Kharkiv
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Image: Pavlo Stekh

Oleksiy Selin has been living on the streets for five months. Every evening the 82-year-old takes himself to Kharkiv’s central railway station, finds a free seat in the waiting room and attempts to sleep until morning. His legs and feet have started to become swollen, but if a homeless person tries to lie down in the building, the police throw them out, and sleeping on the street is too awful to contemplate.

When Oleksiy was a young man, he worked at Kharkiv’s electrical engineering plant and was able to buy a plot of land near Belgorod, a town over the border in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he moved freely between Russia and Ukraine: as a Ukrainian citizen he had a Ukrainian pension, but his house was in Russia.

However, on 1 March 2020, the Ukrainian government introduced a new law that requires Ukrainiancitizens to hold an international passport to travel to Russia (an ID document was previously sufficient). So, the next time Oleksiy received his pension and set out for Belgorod, he was stopped at the border. He applied for an international passport and lived at the station while he was waiting for it.

“I asked them to hurry up with it, I’m in a bad way. But no luck,” he told openDemocracy.

A month later, Oleksiy received his international passport and travelled to the Hoptivka border checkpoint. But he was once again turned away. The COVID-19 pandemic meant new Russian restrictions on travel: foreign nationals could only cross the border if they required medical treatment or to provide healthcare for close relatives.

“The border control official said: bring a form saying that your brother or sister needs medical treatment and care. But my brother and sister live near Belgorod and they’ve been ill for a long time,” Oleksiy says. He returned to Kharkiv and sent his sister a letter. Now he spends every night at the station, and goes to the post office each morning to check whether he’s had a reply.

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Oleskiy Selin | Image: Pavlo Stekh

Homelessness as a consequence

Many people have become homeless in Ukraine as a result of the socio-economic fallout from the lockdown, according to the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in the country. The mission reports that people living on the streets have disproportionate health risks and have suffered negative consequences from the lockdown measures. Many homeless people have lost their already restricted access to food because of interruptions in the work of some NGOs, and the closure of stations and cafes have left them without water or access to toilet facilities.

“Being informally employed outside their home regions, [people have] lost their jobs, could no longer pay rent and could not get back to their homes due to the suspension of intercity transport,” says the mission. “There were cases where prisoners released during the quarantine could not return to their homes due to the suspension of public transport.”

Temporary homelessness has also affected people who, because of the lockdown, could not cross the demarcation line with the occupied areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. People going to the areas controlled by the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” are required to have local registration and explain the reasons for their visit. Some people just use the Ukrainian checkpoint without requesting permission from the other side, and when they are refused entry to the other side, they are left stuck between the checkpoints.

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Some elderly people may have a home, but have trouble paying for food | Image: Pavlo Stekh

These people cannot return to Ukrainian-controlled territory, since for this they need to be registered - as well as own a smartphone to set up a mobile app for self-isolation – or money for a test to avoid quarantine. Caught between two checkpoints, people can spend between a few days and several months sleeping in tents, with volunteers bringing them food and drink.

Another temporary homeless group of people affected by quarantine are those affected by domestic violence. According to the La Strada organisation, it took more than 2,000 emergency calls relating to domestic violence in just the first month of lockdown, twice as many as the previous month. This could be the quarantine, as well as a move to distance working that has left partners and family members at home 24/7. The La Strada organisation are concerned that victims of domestic violence are often forced onto the street - because of the pandemic, some shelters have stopped accepting new cases.

The lockdown has made homelessness more obvious, says Olha Makar, coordinator of the Youth for Peace movement which provides aid to homeless people in Kyiv. “The people who have been invisible in society have become only too visible, because everyone else has gone home,” says Makar.

According to Makar, since the beginning of lockdown, hunger and thirst have been the biggest problems for homeless people. And since public transport has closed down, volunteers have had problems getting to distribution points for food and assistance. As a result, volunteers have now begun feeding homeless people near their own homes.

Access to medical help and food

Valery, 68, is standing in a queue for soup. His legs are painful, and that means that he walks slowly, leaning on a stick. On weekdays, homeless people are fed near Kharkiv’s railway station – there is a queue of 30 or so people. Volunteers ask people to keep their distance and wear facemasks, and you can acquire masks and wash your hands with antiseptic hand gel.

This is one of the four food provision points in Kharkiv, run by volunteers from the Depol charity, which also works in Odesa and Kyiv. They don’t just feed the homeless (around 250 people a day), but also help them sort out their ID papers, find them work and offer medical and emotional support.

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People line up at a food distribution van in Kharkiv | Image: Pavlo Stekh

Valery got into a bad state after the death of his wife: “We had sold our house near Kharkiv and moved to Zaporizhzhya, where we wanted to buy a house. But we were too late – my wife passed away. I returned here and spent two months living in the woods outside Kharkiv.”

As charities have explained more than once, homelessness is not a deliberate choice. People of all ages and social standing may become homeless for numerous reasons. It could be health issues, including mental ones; it could be loss of work or guardianship, war or a natural disaster, domestic violence or discrimination or poor socialisation after care or prison.

Now Valery has a pension, but his son works, so they have recently rented a double room together. Valery also has a plot of land near Kharkiv, but can’t look after it because of his missing papers.

He also can’t access hospital treatment, as he has no official registration of his home address – an issue that affects many homeless people. And you also need proper papers to register with a local doctor – if you don’t have one, you can’t be referred to a specialist for hospital examinations and tests, including for COVID-19. For many homeless people, a hospital visit often ends at the front desk. Human factors also play a role – this group suffers a lack of goodwill among the public.

And even if someone without proper papers manages to get to a specialist, under quarantine in order to access hospital treatment or an operation they have to provide a negative Coronavirus test result – and only someone who is registered with a GP is eligible for a free test.

Before lockdown, some homeless people could use the money they earn to rent a bed in a hostel, but many of them have lost this work because of the closure of markets, recycling points and building sites where they worked unofficially

“I need a piece of paper showing that I’m well or unwell – something connected with COVID-19,” Valery tells me. “I can’t get there, but they keep sending me to different places.” Because of an inadequate diet and conditions, and even temporary housing, homeless people have poor health, so they may be particularly vulnerable to the virus.

Vadym Lysenko, a member of the 100% Life organisation in Kharkiv, collects homeless people each week and takes them to hospital, where they have chest X-rays, checking for TB, as homeless people are an at risk group. Lysenko takes people to hospital and pays their travel costs. If nothing is found, they get a form that will allow them to use a shelter. At the start of the COVID pandemic, access to medical facilities only became worse, he says.

Ukraine is also continuing to reform its ambulance service. This year, all phone calls from the public have been divided into four groups: the first two groups involve emergencies. and the second two - call-outs with no risk to life. This system should make the system more effective, but for the homeless it’s yet another barrier. Until recently, if someone was found on the street with, for example, swollen feet and unable to walk, volunteers would call an ambulance.

Now, the service won’t come out to deal with this kind of case, or if it comes out it will refuse to take the person to hospital, as it’s not seen as an emergency. Instead, medics will suggest going to a hospital GP service, but only if the patient has the proper papers. In other words, many homeless people infected with Coronavirus can’t rely on an ambulance turning up.

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Charitable organisations often hand out extra food | Image: Pavlo Stekh

Access to temporary accommodation and work

Before lockdown, some homeless people could use the money they earn to rent a bed in a hostel, but many of them have lost this work because of the closure of markets, recycling points and building sites where they worked unofficially. The start of the lockdown in Ukraine meant a considerable rise in unemployment, and homeless people found it even harder to pick up work.

Ihor, 36, was born and brought up in Kharkiv. Trained as an electrical engineer, he worked at the city’s tractor works. But eight years ago, his house burned down and he ended up on the street. Ihor spends his time near the station, going through rubbish containers. Igor takes glass bottles out of the containers and puts them in one bag; tin cans in another and plastics in a third. He then takes these materials to a recycling point and receives enough money to provide himself with lunch.

“I don’t work anywhere. Nobody would take me anyway; I don’t have the right papers. They take one look at me and that’s it – I don’t even have anywhere to shave,” Ihor tells openDemocracy. “The worst bit is that you keep having to start from scratch. And if they take me on, what will I eat until payday?”

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Ihor | Image: Pavlo Stekh

Ihor doesn’t think his life has changed since lockdown – the recycling centre is as busy as ever. He doesn’t need any healthcare, and never slept in a shelter. The only thing that has changed is the mask in his pocket.

“I don’t wear a mask. I only ever wore it once when I came to see the volunteers. I put it on and got a meal. But otherwise it just lies in my pocket – just in case,” he says. “The volunteers are always saying: ‘We can smell the booze coming off you. We don’t feed drunkards. But I just drink to get some sleep – I can’t sleep otherwise.”

Alcohol or drug dependency is often the result, rather than the cause of homelessness. During lockdown, life has become even harder for homeless people with dependencies, since drug dispensaries closed down for the quarantine period. Ivan Boberskyi, head of a night shelter for homeless people in Ivano-Frankivsk, remarks on their fate: “Not a single homeless shelter will take someone with those kind of dependencies, they’re doomed.”

According to the UN Monitoring Mission, there are no night shelters in six of Ukraine’s regions: Luhansk, Kyiv, Ternopil, Vinnytsya, Zakarpattua and Zaporizhzhya. In Lutsk, in the northwest, there is a shelter, but it is only open in the winter, and the one in Mykolaiv only takes men. In four other regions – Kharkiv, Khmelnitskyi, Kirovohrad and Sumy – shelters aren’t taking any new cases because of the lockdown. Some shelters in Kyiv, Dnipro and Zaporizhzhya have taken the same measures.

“I don’t go to shelters,” Ihor tells openDemocracy. “I’ve been on the streets a long time and know them all – the old and the new – and I’ve never heard a good word [about a shelter in Kharkiv].”

Positive practices

As the UN mission notes, local authorities in some regions work with civic initiatives to help homeless people. In Cherkasy, Chernihiv, Chernivtsy, Poltava and Zhytomir, for example, social institutions are financed by local authorities, but run by social organisations. In other regions, however, volunteers provide the only help for the homeless and are funded by charities.

“In Kharkiv, we have an excellent mutual understanding with the city’s social policy department, and resolve all issues together,” says Volodymyr Balabanov, director of the Depol organisation. “We also sometimes work with local communal institutions, because public organisations and charities have considerable leeway in both the organisation of their resources and their use. But they aren’t connected financially, like local authorities.”

Balabanov mentions that in the first lockdown days, problems arose over the undefined status of volunteers – how they could work with homeless people on the street without breaking quarantine rules? The police observed the volunteers’ work and didn’t hinder them. However, he remarked that in the first few days there weren’t enough masks, antiseptic gel and food for the volunteers. Socially aware business owners were also helpful and with time organisation returned to normal.

"There is still a stereotypical belief among the Ukrainian public that homeless people themselves chose this kind of life, that they don’t want to work, that they carry illnesses and that they all drink. These are baseless myths"

However, volunteers had to temporarily observe quarantine three times, since one of the organisation staff proved to have Coronavirus, and all the other volunteers had to be checked.

“We usually carry out tests immediately if this happens, but it takes three to five days to complete them. We don’t want to risk our staff and clients and are afraid to infect them. They don’t have a clue how to treat them and what to use,” Balabanov says.

According to the NGO workers, since the start of quarantine in Sumy and Lviv, local government structures have increased their financial support to public shelters and provided the homeless with food. But on the other hand, Kherson and Chernihiv have decreased their support to homeless shelters.

At the same time, Ruslan Svetliy, head of Kyiv’s social policy department, had been angry back in spring at the thought that members of public organisations were “over-feeding” homeless persons during lockdown.

“I’m even arguing with them. They over-feed them, dress them and give them shelter. Why? There’s more of them as a result. We don’t need organisations to corrupt homeless people. Let them go to work,” he said.

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An advert shows Ukrainian poet Lesya Ukrainka telling people to wear masks | Image: Pavlo Stekh

There are too few social workers to provide effective help to homeless people, but as social services are financed out of local budgets, the situation varies between towns and cities, as Oksana Sulima, an officer of Ukraine’s social policy ministry, explains. Answering the question of how the state is supporting people who may be homeless because of quarantine, the official replied that fines for non-payment of utilities had been temporarily cancelled.

“In order to speak about the fact that someone has lost their home over some debts for non-payment of utilities… We would need to carry out some research to find out why they lost their home during the Coronavirus period,” says Sulima. “Because, in fact payments have been increased, extra help given, rent payments were postponed and subsidies improved. In other words, the state has taken a whole series of measures.”

At the same time, the UN Monitoring Mission called on the Ukrainian government and local authorities to increase social support to homeless persons, citing examples of support for the homeless in other countries. For example, in the UK a central London hotel was reorganised as a treatment centre for homeless people who were suspected of, or had shown proof of COVID-19, while Prague city council paid hotel costs for the homeless and provided them with food and personal hygiene expenses.

“Similar initiatives on the part of state structures will become possible in Ukraine when – soon, I believe – public demand for them appears,” says Olha Makar of Youth for Peace. “There is still a stereotypical belief among the Ukrainian public that homeless people themselves chose this kind of life, that they don’t want to work, that they carry illnesses and that they all drink. These are baseless myths. When we dismiss them, we shall see an enormous world of lonely, poor, hungry and various people, and we shall see that we don’t need to be protected from them, but, to the contrary, to protect them.”

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