When someone ends up in the street without papers or social connections, they automatically lose access to the majority of the things we are used to, things that are necessary for life: uninterrupted sleep, shower, toilet, sometimes even drinking water. Spaces which we call public become inaccessible to them: homeless people are often kicked out of public transportation, as well as train stations or underground crossings; guards do not let them into shopping malls and most restaurants.
As the reaction on the pandemic of the virus SARS-CoV-2 on the 12th of March 2020, Ukraine deploys national quarantine. During this crisis, the homeless are among the most vulnerable groups of people. Ukrainian authorities recommend practicing social distancing and self-isolation. However, only in Kyiv live at least 27 000 homeless people, who cannot follow that advice. In the Ukrainian capital, there are no comprehensive reintegration programs for the homeless and the sole municipal shelter is suitable for 150 people and is not free of charge.
In November 2019, Internationaler Arbeitskreis e.V. in partnership with the CEDOS Think Tank and with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany organized educational exchanges for urban activists from Ukraine and Germany. The project was titled the Dialogue for Cohesive Cities. To follow up on the results of the educational trips, Mistosite is publishing a series of media materials created as a part of the project. In each of them, we speak about a particular aspect of (un)fairness in the contemporary urban milieu.
In the following article, we tried to find out how homeless people live in Kyiv, why they sleep at the train station even though they are chased out of there with truncheons, and how the city creates the illusion of help. We will also explain why a homeless person cannot return to normal life after years in the street even if they find a job.
In his first week at the central train station, Taras learned the key lesson: you’d better not be asleep at 4 a.m. If you fall asleep, lie down, lower your guard—they will come for you and beat you up. And it’s bound to happen when you’re at your most vulnerable: at 2 or 4 a.m.
The third floor of the train station smells like urine and meatballs. There’s a waiting hall here, the most remote of them all. The escalator, covered in empty potato chip bags and cigarette butts, doesn’t work. People who have to wait an hour before their train usually don’t reach this place: they anxiously watch the electronic schedule near the platforms, some scroll on their phones, read newspapers, check their tickets, eat sandwiches, call someone on the phone. They wait a bit and then they leave. On the third floor, everything is different: most people here are not anxious about missing their train. This is a waiting hall without any waiting.
Taras knows the laws of the train station: don’t trust, don’t talk a lot, don’t sleep, don’t provoke, don’t defend, agree, don’t approach the police. If you know the laws, you’ll be able to stay longer.
He’s 58, and he has lived at the train station for a few months now. He is not the only one: his neighbors are a quiet woman of undetermined age, two migrant workers from the regions who were cheated out of their wages, orphanage graduates who have never figured out how this world works, all kinds of people. Some stay here for months, some disappear in an unknown direction sooner.
In the waiting hall, Taras hangs on to his place: a seat in the front row next to a pillar. «Like in an opera box,» he smiles. «VIP.»
But without music. It’s just that sitting next to a pillar is comfortable: you can lean on it and nap without anyone noticing. The biggest temptation, he says, is to lie down. Sometimes half the seats are empty, the whole row is unoccupied, you want to stretch your legs, lie straight, put the bag with your belongings under your head and sleep for at least a few hours. But this is monitored at the train station. If you lie down, guards will come in a few minutes, drag you onto the floor, beat you up and kick you out. To keep up appearances, they will ask you where your ticket is for the hundredth time. There will be no ticket.
The most valuable thing in Taras’s possession is a notebook with phone numbers: his son’s, his brother’s, his ex-wife’s, his foreman’s and his asshole boss’s. Taras keeps it in the pocket of his once-white shirt which he closes with a button. He hasn’t called these numbers for over a year; he only called his neighbor once from a borrowed phone, asking if there was any work for him in the city. He lied about his situation, saying that everything was alright, he was working at a new construction site, he’d soon come home with money, he was just thinking about working closer to home and that’s why he was asking. But the neighbor didn’t offer him a job, and Taras didn’t call anymore, lest he thinks that Taras is in trouble.
Taras’s story, he says, is nothing special, it’s just like everyone else’s. He worked at a sugar factory in Lviv region for twenty years, living with his wife and two children. He taught his daughter to stand her ground since she was little; he trained her so well that when she was in third grade, teachers called him from school and complained: Olia beat up her classmates again. Taras’s love for his kids was mutual: when they were little, they ran to their dad every night to get their goodnight kiss.
«Sometimes I was busy or angry after work, I would say, why are you here, what do you want from me? A kiss. We want a kiss.» And then, says Taras, everything started falling apart like dominoes. He cheated on his wife, she didn’t forgive him and kicked him out; the factory was closed and dismantled for scrap metal; in addition, his brother got addicted to alcohol by drinking rum & coke and died of liver disease. Taras managed to get by with some gigs in the Lviv region: dismantling, painting, plastering walls. After his brother’s death, he didn’t drink at all, even on major Christian holidays. He wanted to return to his wife a few times, to ask for her forgiveness, to make some money, renovate the house, get back his life as a perfect father and a loving husband.
«After the Maidan, I wanted to go to war, but I didn’t pass the tests,» says Taras. «Although maybe if I did go, I wouldn’t be sitting here collecting snort around the station. Maybe I’d be a hero, and I’d be forgiven.»
Everything crumbled: he found a job at a construction site, worked for a few months, didn’t get paid, the boss vanished, he had no money to pay for the hostel, he was kicked out, his papers were stolen, then he found a small gig, lived in a trailer and got paid weekly. Life seemed to be looking up, but one evening the man was stopped by two guys in an underground crossing. They stole 300 hryvnias and broke his skull with an iron pipe.
«At the hospital, they asked if I had money. What money? I was robbed. They said: look for money, call people, and I thought, who would I call? They told me to bite on a fork and stitched my head without anesthesia. Then they discharged me. My head hurt all the time, I walked around not knowing where to go, I didn’t understand what was going on, but I knew for sure I couldn’t go back like that: a cripple, a cheater, and without money at that,» says Taras. He came here, to the train station, because it’s nearly the only place where you can stay warm.
Taras is confident that he’ll get out of this, as soon as the unbearable headache, which has tortured him 24/7 for several months now, passes. Then, he says, he’ll be able to find a gig, make some money. He imagines coming home for Christmas: with gifts, in a nice suit, with a Kyiv cake in his hands. He’ll be welcomed by his 20-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, they’ll be glad and rush to hug him after several years apart. He won’t tell them that he was homeless, he’ll say that he was working in construction.
But it’s just a dream. For now, he only has the train station, the unbearable headache, and the seat next to a pillar where he sometimes manages to catch half an hour of sleep.
«If hell exists, the train station is its branch. People who are doing well and who’re just waiting for their train don’t notice that,» says Taras. «But in fact, people here become animals, they steal, they go wild. The guards are another thing. There was one young guy, he got the job recently, he was kind, polite. Now he beats us more than anyone else. I ask him, why are you kicking him, he’s sick, he’s sleeping? He says, he’s a bum, not a person, this is the only treatment he’d understand.»
Taras has been in the street for only a few months. He doesn’t call himself homeless and he believes it is temporary, just a rough patch. If he’s lucky, he’ll actually find a job, dare to call home, and the incessant headache will pass. Or he will just call someone from his notebook and ask for help. But if he’s not lucky, he will be left alone with chronic illness in the street. In a few years in the street, a person loses all their social contacts, and every month their chances of returning to their former life will shrink until they disappear. The government will not help.
People are weak
Taras is one of the thousands for whom one mistake was followed by many others, and who ended up in the train station with a single plastic bag of belongings.
«Each person who ends up in the street has their own background, and everything is set up to reveal their worst features. So the homeless environment is very aggressive,» says Olia Makar, a journalist and a member of the Youth for Peace movement which helps homeless people. «In the street, you need to be vigilant all the time, many homeless people have been attacked: by the police, by other homeless people, by teenagers. In these circumstances, people lose their minds very quickly.»
One of the key reasons why people end up in the street, explains Olia, is loneliness and weak social ties. If someone has problems, they are supposed to call someone and ask for help: friends, acquaintances, family members. When you have no-one to call, you can’t expect help from anywhere.
«I knew a homeless man, his mom drank heavily, and once, when she was drunk, she transferred the ownership of her apartment to someone else. He tried to get the apartment back for a few years, he lived with his friends. Once, he came to the ID Office, and the ID official told him something like, ‘Nobody needs you anymore, you’re going to fail.’ After that, he packed his things, went somewhere, started drinking, drank for ten years and died of liver cirrhosis,» says Olia.
It takes two to three years to realize that you’re in the street now, says the volunteer. At first, people try to convince themselves and others that it’s temporary. And these first few years are the time when something can still change. In this time, people lose all their connections, their perception of reality changes, and it’s very difficult to return to normal life.
«People are very weak. We assume that people are adults, they’re strong, capable of anything, but this is far from the truth,» says Olia.
A few years ago, an Instagram page called Life’s a Bitch started posting photos of Kyiv’s homeless people and stories of how they had ended up in the street and how their lives were going now. The project was created by a 27-year-old cameraman who doesn’t reveal his name. He talks to homeless people, takes pictures of them, tells the stories of their lives and tries to help them, giving medicine to some, food, housing, tickets to get home to others. The page’s followers are also joining in, too: in the past year, over 100,000 hryvnias have been collected to help homeless people.
People end up in the street with different experiences and for different reasons: some had a successful well-paid job but made a mistake, others weren’t able to rehabilitate after the war in Afghanistan, still others were released from jail to find that everything from their former life had disappeared. Some came out of orphanages with no idea how to interact with society, some lost their families, escaped domestic violence, some have mental conditions, someone’s apartment was stolen by con artists—the list goes on and on.
Orphanage graduates often come out without any understanding of how to buy groceries at a supermarket, how to pay the cashier or how to earn money. People who end up in the street often just «don’t know how to live,» says the project’s initiator. There are many people like that, and the government doesn’t really help. There’s a big problem with social programs for the homeless—there are none.
«At school, they give you some default basic knowledge which doesn’t teach you how to deal with life at all. In the contemporary world, people need to adapt quickly, but they teach us to pick an occupation and bang our heads on the door trying to get into it until someone starts throwing things at us from above. People leave school, and especially boarding schools for orphans, and enter life, they need to make decisions, they need to work somewhere, but they can’t really understand what’s going on. People start stumbling right there. They pick random jobs just to make at least some money, and they don’t think about personal growth, only about survival. Social services don’t help them at this stage and don’t explain anything, people often start drinking, and gradually they end up in the street,» says the young man.
The project founder says that one of the key problems is that society strongly stigmatizes people who end up in the street.
«Everyone in the world makes mistakes. But if a homeless person makes them, it’s much worse, because they’re homeless. Their mistakes are more apparent,» he explains. «Let’s be honest, people who have jobs can also get drunk a few times a week for stress relief. It’s nothing new, drinking to take the edge off. And homeless people live in an aggressive environment, they are hungry, they are constantly on the lookout for places to spend the night, and any minute, they can be beaten up even by teenagers.»
Homeless people are also kicked out of everywhere. This, says the activist, is the norm in their lives. When someone loses their papers, they lose access to basic necessities: shower, hygiene, housing. «You just live as long as you live, and then you get a death certificate,» says the young man.
In Kyiv, probably the only place where homeless people can spend the night and take a shower is the Center for Registering Homeless Citizens in Suzdalska Street. But even just to take a shower there, you need a special paper certifying that you’re actually homeless. The procedure to obtain the paper can take a month.
«People at their worst will not be able to visit all kinds of offices for a month, collecting papers to get a certificate in order to have a shower. Of course, there are people who can work, who can manage somehow, but theoretically, these people can also find a place to live; for the most difficult cases, however, there is nothing at all,» explains Olia Makar.
«The state seemingly gives you a chance to climb out, but it’s a very weak attempt,» adds the founder of the Life’s a Bitch project.
«The homeless people I talk to say that they mostly don’t use public transportation because they get kicked out, and often it’s done just by random people or the controller because they smell and look bad,» says the founder of Life’s a Bitch.
Public spaces which aren’t accessible to everyone include shopping malls, cafes, cinemas, and museums, explains the sociologist Anastasia Riabchuk, a researcher of homelessness and the author of the book Excess People: The Homeless in the Streets of Kyiv and the thesis Structural Factors of Reproduction and Social Representation of Homelessness.
«Shopping malls can be located in underground crossings, so homeless people, who are not allowed inside, have to look for other ways to cross the street. For instance, the Metrograd Mall occupies a large underground area between Besarabska Square and Lva Tolstogo Square,» explains the sociologist.
Many public spaces stop being public due to commercialization. In the case of cafes, homeless people are often not allowed inside. They avoid these places themselves, too, so they don’t eat warm food or even don’t eat seated at a table for weeks. A few years ago, the Kyiv City State Administration issued a decree stating that everyone can use the bathroom of any restaurant or cafe. But this cannot fully replace a proper system of public bathrooms.
There are also spaces that are public in theory, but due to the proliferation of paid entertainment and services, they stop being public, and not just for homeless people, explains the researcher. «The Christmas tree in Kontraktova Square. Seemingly a public space, it ‘gives a holiday mood’ to everyone. But a cup of mulled wine costs 70 hryvnias, the children’s train costs 80, the ferris wheel costs 100 and so on. Even the supposedly free-of-charge skating rink is not accessible if you don’t have your own skates (or you have to pay to rent them right there). To get into a ‘holiday mood’ in this space, a family must be prepared to spend a thousand hryvnias in one evening.»
Train stations are among the more or less accessible places to spend the night. People get kicked out of there regularly, but at least they can keep warm for a few hours. Still, says Olia, the train station is usually available only to those homeless people who look better, while others can’t even get in there. Before, homeless people could sleep at public transit stations, but in recent years many designer benches which are impossible to lie on have appeared, and many bus stops are now equipped with benches partitioned into individual seats. The homeless are chased out of underground crossings, too.
If in summer, you can spend a night at the park, in the cold season you need to look for hot water pipes, windless corners or staircases without intercom locks—which can hardly be found nowadays. Sometimes people make deals with janitors who let them into their instrument closets—old Soviet apartment buildings often have these.
«Homeless people often try to sit out the night without sleep, so that even the things that they do have don’t get stolen. They often sit in 24/7 cafes such as Aroma Coffee, because that’s where you can buy something cheapest and sit for a while. And if you buy something, you’re not thrown out to the street,» says the founder of Life’s a Bitch.
The activist mostly talks to homeless people in the Dniprovskiy District. He says that the homeless choose residential neighborhoods because they’re safer, people bother them less here.
«In part, this can be explained by the fact that local residents have a lower income than in the center, and they just don’t have the time to deal with them. The homeless just walk around collecting recyclable goods, there are water fountains here, so at least they have access to drinking water. They know the schedule when garbage collectors collect the waste, and they try to search through the bins before that. Their day usually starts at 5 a.m., and in the afternoon, some of them get some sleep, some spend what they’ve earned on alcohol. Meanwhile, they look for a place to spend the night,» says the young man.
Now he is working on a new project with a team of friends. They want to create a proper information center where homeless people will be able to take a shower, consult a lawyer, get referred to a doctor, receive mental support, learn simple crafts. They plan to develop a several-months-long program that will allow the people who complete it to live a life in society.
«People think that if you’re homeless, you have to just turn everything around in 10 minutes. For some reason, there’s an opinion that if you «clean up» a homeless person and give them a job, that’s it, they’ll have a new life. But they have lived their whole life in a different environment, and just by changing their clothes, they won’t become different, they will have the same brain in their head with which they’ve faced all these challenges in the street. It’s a very long process for a person to be able to return to the social world.
What happens in other countries
City homelessness policies in other countries vary even within Europe. For instance, in 2018 in Hungary, which has 20,000 t0 50,000 homeless people, the government banned them from staying and spending nights in public spaces. Breaking the decree entails fines or prison. The police got the right to chase homeless people off the streets and destroy their temporary sleeping places which they often arrange in the street.
«There are so many negative practices,» comments Anastasia Riabchuk. «And these include both actions—laws that ban begging or staying in the same location for over twenty minutes, uncomfortable partitioned benches installed on public transportation stops or in parks to prevent homeless people from resting on them—and inaction: the lack of social housing stock, affordable dormitories or shelters, employment programs and rehabilitation programs for homeless people with addictions.»
The number of homeless people in Germany is growing, and the causes that are called out include its shrinking social housing stock and the general increase in poverty. In 2018, about 678,000 people did not have a permanent place of residence, including 41,000 who lived in the street. One of the key explanations is the insufficient number of affordable housing units for low-income people. To resolve this problem, Germany needs up to 100,000 new social apartments and about 100,000 affordable ones, explains a report by the Wohnungslosenhilfe social services union.
One of the positive examples of government homelessness policy is provided by Finland. Since 2007, the country has had the national program titled Housing First, which involves providing people who end up in the street with permanent housing. In addition, they get the necessary help—for instance, people addicted to drugs get a chance to receive education and find a job. The story in Vienna, Austria, is similar: the homeless get help with jobs, medical treatment, and housing. In 2016, for instance, a study program for homeless people was launched; its graduates will be able to conduct tours around the city. In addition, a significant share of homeless people in Vienna are Hungarians who have moved from Budapest or Gyor after the repressive laws against the homeless, Roma people and other vulnerable population groups were adopted there.
Anastasia Riabchuk is convinced: «There are fewer homeless people in places with higher shares of municipal-owned, rather than privately-owned housing. Then the city can regulate real estate prices better, provide subsidies to vulnerable population categories and prevent homelessness that way.»
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, according to the State Statistics Service, over 90% of the housing stock is privately-owned, and there are no government programs to develop the public rental sector. A study by CEDOS demonstrates the dangerous trends: 44% of their respondents do not know what they would do if they lost their current housing. All of these people can potentially become homeless.