oDR: Feature

Down and out in Kyiv: how Russia’s invasion has hit homeless people

From volunteers’ help and empathy to alleged removal from the city by police: Kyiv’s homeless people recount their experiences of wartime life

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Kateryna Semchuk
3 May 2022, 6.17pm

The way Kyiv has treated its homeless people contains a glimpse of hope for the future

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(c) Oleksii Sergieiev / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

On a sunny Easter Sunday morning in Kyiv, the first warm day in weeks, two middle-aged men are sorting their handful of belongings in a secluded part of the city’s Solomyanskyy Park. Oleh and Misha are homeless and have been living in a dugout here for a week. They moved here together after the metro at Kyiv’s central railway station, where they had been living, resumed operation. Misha, who is originally from the western Zakarpattya region, once helped install the park’s central fountain – which is how he knew about their new temporary home.

Oleh, 58, from the Vinnytsia region, is a handyman without a job or a place to live. The Russian invasion found him in Stoyanka, a village close to the E40 highway, leading west out of the city. He and another 16 people were living in a ‘religious rehabilitation centre’, where homeless people worked in exchange for a roof over their head and three meals a day.

“I was lying on a sofa; it was around noon. A missile hit our building, and a piece of wall fell on my legs. Some men helped me get out, I got off lightly, with just a pinched nerve in my knee,” he said.

After the missile strike, Oleh and other surviving residents hid in a nearby church. Their passports and other documents, kept in the centre’s safe, were probably burned in the blast, he said. The next day men wearing blue armbands – most likely a local defence unit or volunteers of some kind – took them to another village. From there, they found their way to Boyarka, a town southwest of Kyiv, and then took a train to the capital.

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Asked if he had considered evacuating to western Ukraine, Oleh responded rhetorically: “And where would I go? After some time I stopped being afraid. If I get hit, so be it.”

Volunteers

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, homeless people, single unemployed people, those living on welfare benefits, older people, those with severe mental illness, and undocumented people have found themselves in a vulnerable position. But even under unimaginable circumstances, Kyiv residents have shown great empathy for the most vulnerable, self-organising to provide help for them.

As Mykola Fedorchenko, 45, told me, while queuing for a free meal at the Chornomorka restaurant in the city centre: “You can’t die of hunger in Kyiv; you’d have to try really hard.”. In March, the restaurant chain started a project to distribute meals every Sunday, providing around 1,000 to 1,500 every week. Some of its food also goes to military personnel and territorial defence units.

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Chornomorka restaurant’s initiative is named “Palianytsia”, a Ukrainian round-baked bread whose name is notoriously difficult for Russians to pronounce

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Image: Kateryna Semchuk

Chornomorka’s Sunday meals are one of many food aid projects – from vegan kitchens to initiatives by the Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches – that appeared in the Ukrainian capital as the Russian invasion continued.

Ironically at the same time, a number of regular soup kitchens that were operating in Kyiv before the war had to temporarily put their work on pause, including the vegan, left-wing Solidarity Kitchen and the Help A Homeless Person initiative. Olha Romenska, one of the founders of Help A Homeless Person, told openDemocracy that their initiative has only recently restarted giving out food in the central Podil neighbourhood.: “Since 24 February, the number of visitors at this location has halved. But while we took a break, those who still needed help were supported by another organisation.”

The organisation also runs a hostel with 14 beds, which has continued to operate without disruption. Hostel residents distribute food every day at the Olympic Metro station.

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Mykola Fedorchenko

Oleh, Misha and Mykola have good things to say about volunteers: acts of kindness, they believe, have become more common as Kyiv residents endured hardships together. At the volunteer centre near Solomyanskyy market, for example, Oleh and Misha were given new clothes. “Even underwear, which is always a bit shameful to ask for,” Oleh said.

Oleh also recounted how soldiers at a checkpoint at one of the outposts on the outskirts of Kyiv gave him and his friends a bag of pelmeni dumplings, some lard and bread as they were on their way into the city after two days of travel.

Homeless people have also managed to find shelter during the war, using Kyiv metro stations as bomb shelters, living on platforms and inside train carriages. As Mykola recalled: “If people were sober, the police would let them in without any problems.”

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A lack of work

The exact number of homeless people in the Ukrainian capital is unknown, but according to the state-run Homeless Registration Centre in Kyiv, at the end of 2021 the number of people who were voluntarily registered as homeless in the city was 3,358.

According to the Department of Social Policy in Kyiv, public services for the homeless haven’t stopped their work since the Russian invasion. Both the city’s House of Social Care, which provided people with hot food, warm clothes and shoes, and a centre for comprehensive services for the homeless in Yasnohorodka village, continue to operate on a full-time basis.

For many homeless people in Kyiv the biggest challenge that the Russian invasion has created is a lack of work. When people have work, they have money to rent a bed in a hostel, and this gives them security.

“When you have a job you are human,” explained Mykola, who usually works demolishing buildings, and is currently living with a friend and his friend's mother.

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Left: Underground passage at Lev Tolstoy Square. Right: Tunnel at Solomyanskyy park

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Image: Kateryna Semchuk

Since coming to Kyiv 20 years ago, Oleh has led a precarious life, where his housing depended entirely on whether he was working. Before the pandemic he had a good handyman job that secured him a small apartment. But he lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic, started drinking heavily and became homeless.

Both Mykola and Oleh hope that the current moment of peace in Kyiv will give them a chance to find work.

In the meantime, like many other homeless people, they have done their share of wartime volunteering. Oleh did four two-day shifts unloading cargo at the central railway station, while Mykola helped soup kitchen volunteers load boxes at a metro station.

Relations with the police

With an increase in the number of armed servicemen on the streets of Kyiv, life for homeless people has become more complicated, especially for those who do not have a passport or other documents. Strict identity checks and an increased level of suspicion can be dangerous for people living on the streets without documents.

“In wartime, in my opinion, a certain suspicion has been added to the threats [that the homeless face],” said Ihor Shemihona, a social worker at House of Mercy, a Christian aid organisation. “If a person doesn’t have documents, she or he may be suspected [by the police or military] of some kind of sabotage or something bad.”

Shemihona recalled that during the process of evacuating people to western Ukraine, his organisation had one man, a Russian passport holder who at the time lacked documents, in their care, and decided not to evacuate him “because transporting such a person across checkpoints or the border is dangerous for ourselves”.

Why documents matter

Shemihona explained that in peacetime, a lack of documents did not usually pose a threat to homeless people, because “the Ukrainian authorities tended to take little interest in them”. Rather, a lack of documents could affect their ‘social status’: those without documents would not be admitted to facilities for the homeless, nor receive social support, and, of course, they could not move to more permanent housing.

Before the invasion, the biggest challenge that homeless people faced was winter. In 2020, according to the Kyiv Health Department, 27 people died of hypothermia.

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At the same time, homeless people understand the challenges of the current situation, and attempt to cooperate with authorities as much as possible.

As Mykola, who does not currently have a passport, put it: “I just slowly empty my pockets” when he is checked by the police, who “often” take him for an identity check at a local station.

Yuriy* (he refused to give his real name for fear of getting in trouble with the police), 62, currently lives on scattered sleeping bags and blankets on the ground of an underground passage near Lev Tolstoy Square in central Kyiv. As people pass by, he masterfully paints miniature faces with watercolours in a small notebook with no free pages left.

He said he has lived on this spot for some time now – although he claimed that the Kyiv police tried to move him out of the city around the second week of the invasion.

According to Yuriy, one day a policeman approached him, asked if he was homeless and if he had his passport. Then the policeman told him to follow him.

“My legs hurt, so it was hard for me to walk. I was telling him this. I was taken to the police station near the central railway station on Starovokzalna Street,” he said.

There, police had gathered around 120 other people and kept them in the station yard, Yuriy said. Most had no documents, but some did, and those with passports were outraged because they saw no justified reason for them being detained there.

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Man lying near Kyiv's Besarabka market

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Image: Kateryna Semchuk

“They fed us oatmeal,” he recalled. “Then the police wrote down our personal data and took a mug shot. And then they took around 30 people, including me, in a bus out of Kyiv in the direction of Troeshchyna [a neighbourhood in the east of the city]. They left us behind a military outpost near a forest, close to the thermal power plant. We could hear shooting.”

Yuriy said that soldiers at the outpost let them head back in the direction of Kyiv. He then made his way by foot back to the underground passage near Lev Tolstoy Square.

Natalia, 42, who is also homeless and takes care of Yuriy, claimed that about a week after, the police also detained her, but this time she was taken towards the Lisovyy Masyv neighbourhood, to the north of Kyiv.

“Each of us was given a piece of paper with a number. The police accompanied the bus, which had 40 people on it,” she said.

Although police did not explain to Yuriy and Natalia why they were being driven out of the city, both of them expressed resentment about the alleged episodes, believing that they were intended to be used as ‘cannon fodder’ or free labour for digging trenches. Both acknowledged that they were treated well, apart from the fact that the police left them in a dangerous place from which they had to make their own way back.

When asked to comment, Kyiv city police stated that officers “did not take part in… the deportation of persons without permanent residence in the capital”.

Although police officials denied that homeless people in Kyiv were removed from the city, a number of other homeless people I spoke to, including Oleh and Misha, reported that something similar happened to them or people they know. From these reports, it appears the Kyiv police repeated this "evacuation" a number of times after the beginning of the invasion and up until Russian troops left the Kyiv region.

One possible explanation could be the existence of Russian saboteur operations in the Kyiv region: to reduce the number of potential suspects, police perhaps decided to remove people living on the streets.

Returning to normal

Today, almost a month has passed since Russian troops retreated from the Kyiv region. Although life in Kyiv will not return to normal for a long time, some things are slowly heading back to how they used to be with cafes and restaurants reopening and residents returning. And so it seems that the empathy for homeless people shown by Kyiv residents when the city was under attack has started to wear off.

“When there’s no calamity, people are at each other’s throats,” Oleh said wearily.

As if to demonstrate this, a man, who says he is resident of the Solomyanka neighbourhood, comes to ‘have a talk’ with Oleh and Misha.

“My wife and my daughter walk in this park, so, you know, if you spend nights here… I just wanted to warn you,” the man threatens politely, before leaving.

When I asked how Oleh and Misha feel about today and the future, Oleh answered that he sleeps with one eye open. If the Russian military returns to Kyiv, both Misha and Oleh say they are ready to take up arms to defend the city, both having served in the military, near Moscow, during the Soviet era.

“I have two sons and a daughter, and this is my motherland. And I have nothing to lose,” Oleh said.

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