Just Like You is a joint project of Real Stories Production and the United Nations Development Programme in Ukraine financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark
Olia Makar is a member of the “Youth for Peace” movement and the community of Sant’Edigio, and a teacher of Italian
- In 2005, the Law of Ukraine “On the Principles of Social Protection of Homeless Citizens and Homeless Children” was adopted.
- NGOs can receive public funding for projects for the social protection of homeless people and homeless children.
- At the end of 2018, the Centre for the Registration of Homeless Persons registered 1,628 such persons in Kyiv.
- In October 2019, Kyiv City Council drafted new rules for the subway: from now on, no beggars and people in dirty clothes will be allowed in them.
We do not use the word ‘volunteering’, because that mostly refers to temporary activities. For example, you see a person lying on the pavement with no signs of life, you understand that you have to stop and do something, but “today is not Tuesday, I help on Tuesdays.” Volunteering has its start and its end. Our idea is to make friends with homeless people, to make our way of life humane.
I was 18 years old, I was studying at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. One day, a classmate proposed to go and distribute food to homeless people in the evening. I still do not understand why I agreed at that moment.
The first homeless person I met was Viacheslav. I asked how he was doing, and he asked: “Have you read Nietzsche?” It turned out that he had worked as an ornithologist all his life, went on expeditions and worked at the Academy of Sciences. After retiring, Viacheslav and his wife divorced, she threw him out of the flat while he was on an expedition. He found himself on the street, and then was beaten by teenagers and almost lost his vision.
Vlad and his wife sold their apartment to help pay to treat a woman for cancer. They settled in her parents’ apartment, but the treatment didn’t help, and she died. And the parents told Vlad to go. He lived with friends, then rented an apartment, worked, and lived for a while on Trukhaniv Island in a tent. His health deteriorated, and he could not work any more.
I know that if I don’t come to distribute food, some people will ask about me specifically. They do not only come to get a sandwich, but also to communicate; they always us how we are doing.
Once I saw Dima next to the university building, but I was ashamed to say hello to a homeless man while I was with my classmates and I just ignored him. A week later, I came to distribute food and learned that he had died. They just told me: “He came to the wrong place at the wrong time.” This case changed me.
Nobody lives on the street for long. If a person does not have ID documents, they consider him or her unidentified, and once a week the municipal services bury such people in unmarked graves in Kyiv cemetery. If we learn that one of our friends has died, we arrange a memorial service. Homeless people themselves ask us to bury them and hold a service if something happens to them.
Often, people who live on the street suffer from mental disorders, often they tell stories that are hard to believe. I have a friend who looks like a forester; everybody calls him Sasha the Forester. He always tells fantastic stories: adventures in the desert, acting in the theatre, his own collections of poems. I didn’t believe it until I saw the photo album: it turned out to be all true. And then he invited me for his birthday celebration, where, he said, there would be a hundred of his friends, in the winter, in the woods. He said: “Take a bus to Brovary, get off at the stop near the poultry farm and follow the signs on the pine trees.” My friends and I went there – we thought we would just have a walk in the woods. But there were the signs on pine trees, and a hundred guests who had previously gone on hiking trips with him, and who had now come to celebrate Sasha the Forester’s 80th birthday.
In winter, the main challenge is to find somewhere to stay overnight. Some people keep walking on the street at night to avoid freezing. And during the day, they warm themselves in the subway or in trains, as they just ride back and forth across the oblast.
Every winter the Kyiv City State Administration website provides information on the warming centres in housing maintenance offices (ZHEDs), hospitals and social centres. In theory, during the night shift, a security guard or some employee should stay with the homeless. Of course, people do not love being forced to do this in their leisure time; they are not paid for it. Often, these rooms are simply corridors where up to five people can take a seat. We check these sites every year and report that they are not working.
There are also several places to stay overnight, and organizations providing clean clothes, food, legal aid and anonymous healthcare in Kyiv. We collect information about them on homelesshelp.me and distribute printed leaflets to homeless people.
I am against creating a ghetto for homeless people. From time to time, I hear the idea of a huge settlement somewhere near Brovary: well, that will never work. It doesn’t make sense to create big centres; small centres located in different places are much better.
Our organization has one rented apartment, one of our friends pays for it. In 2013, we rented this apartment for 60-year-old Oleksandra who had been living on the street since 2002.
When we talked on the street, Oleksandra seemed completely OK; she had no problems with alcohol, she knew about political and historical developments, she was able to express her thoughts logically. But after she moved into the apartment, we noticed serious problems. She could not sleep, she started hearing voices, life in the apartment became unbearable for her. And then the Maidan began, and Oleksandra said that she no longer wanted to live here, she needed to go to save the country. We settled two women in the apartment, but it didn’t help one of them to give up drinking. We continue to communicate with Oleksandra on Tuesdays when she comes to our place at the train station for a meal, but mostly to talk.
Homeless people live with a constant feeling of danger. Theirs is a dog eat dog world, and everyone is against them. And when they are offered help, especially housing, it is difficult for them to accept it. By their standards, this is huge money. It is difficult for them to believe that people wouldn’t want anything in return.
On the street, you constantly think of surviving. You need to go to one end of the city for clean clothes, to the other en, to grab a sandwich, then somewhere else to take a shower and spend a night. There is no time to think about global issues. And when all of a sudden you don’t have to do it, when there is shelter, a shower and food, then you feel emptiness. I think people are often afraid of stopping and looking at their lives.
There was a famous viral text on social media: “Why is the baby sleeping” [the author wrote that women use toddlers to beg and give them alcohol as a sedative – ed.]. I know many Roma children who are like this. They get few vitamins, they live in dire conditions and are so exhausted that they don’t really cry. I saw the same situation in Africa when traveling to Mozambique: girls there come to school with little babies, as if they are dolls, and the babies never cry – they have no energy at all.
Several years ago, an article was published in Ukrainian media about the so-called “beggar mafia” on Maidan. We know all the homeless on Maidan because we have been distributing food there for almost 20 years. And there was not one word of truth in that article. When we called the author to ask where she had received the information, whom she had talked to, she replied, “That’s what everyone knows.” It turned out that the journalist did not even speak to anyone, but just fabricated an article.
Everybody loves orphaned children, visits to boarding schools are a sacred thing. And what’s next? We constantly meet 20-year-old boarding school leavers who do not know what to do with their lives. A year ago, everyone loved them and gave them presents for Christmas, and today they are hated and called “the trash of society.”
The homeless are not welcome anywhere. It’s a huge difference when they go to a hospital by themselves or with us. The attitude is very different. In the first case, they may not even be let into the building, in the second, they are provided with healthcare.
Of course, it is better to buy people food than to give them money, ask how they are doing and how you can help. But when I don’t have time for it, I give a little, at least a few hryvnia. For me, it is more a sign of support, paying attention to the person. I do this in particular for myself, so as not to become too indifferent and callous, I do not allow myself to ignore another’s misery.
We often meet men who have come to Kyiv to make money but have lost their jobs and are ashamed to say that they will come back with nothing. Thus, first of all, I try to understand what the person’s family situation is. In one case a man had fallen out with his family and decided that he wanted to make money first and then go home to make up. We say: “why don’t you go tomorrow?” He was shocked by this idea, but we supported him and persuaded him to call his sister. She was very worried about him, she was happy that her brother was there, and she came to Kyiv the next day to pick him up. And initially, he had been sure his sister wouldn’t want to talk to him.
Sometimes, people just need a launchpad, an opportunity to push themselves – recover documents, wash clothes, stay at a hostel for a month – and then they can handle themselves. I recently met a man who stopped coming to us for meals a few months ago. He was in nice clothes and he said: “Olia, I gave up drinking, found a job, rented a house, I’m fine, ciao for now.”