"One man walked for an hour and a half from Darnytsia to the Maidan for food distribution". How homeless people live during quarantine

Head of the Community of St. Egidius in Kyiv, Yuriy Lifanse talks about the difficulties faced by Ukrainian homeless people during the quarantine.

The article was published on nv.ua on 7 December 2020.

The number of homeless people increased during a total lockdown in Ukraine this spring. Due to the shutdown of small businesses, job cuts and the suspension of public transport, those who previously had unstable low-wage jobs and rented a hostel bed found themselves on the streets. Head of the Community of St. Egidius in Kyiv Yuriy Lifanse talks about how the homeless people survived the quarantine.

Ahead of the Human Rights Day celebrated on 10 December, NV media and the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine are publishing a series of stories about how the pandemic has disproportionately affected people in vulnerable situations and why it is important to put human rights at front and center of the COVID-19 response.

The Community of St. Egidius is a Christian community founded in 1968 following the initiative of Italian politician Andrea Riccardi. Over the years the community has grown into a large network of communities in more than 70 countries. Members of the Community of St. Egidius focus on helping the people in need: people in difficult life circumstances, such as poor people, migrants, children deprived of guardianship or care, people with disabilities. One of the key areas of activity is helping homeless people.

The Community of St. Egidius has been operating in Kyiv since 1991. Its chairman is Yuriy Lifanse, a teacher of Italian. He says it all started with his acquaintance with people who at the time could be called "alternative people."

"It was the Italians from the Community who told us how everything worked, so we decided to establish a similar initiative in Kyiv," he recalls. Everyone who joins the community does so on a volunteer basis. There are about half a thousand such people in Ukraine. In Kyiv - more than two hundred.

NV reporter Sasha Horchynska met with Yuriy Lifanse in the center of Kyiv, on Independence Square, one Saturday morning. At this time volunteers from the Community of St. Egidius distribute food and hot tea to homeless people. In an interview Lifanse talks about the difficulties faced by Ukrainian homeless people during quarantine, why many people found themselves on the streets during a lockdown in spring, and how each of us can help homeless people.

How is the distribution of food for homeless people organized?

There are five distribution points in Kyiv in different districts. We cook and distribute about 700 servings of food per week. As for the menu, here we have competition between days and groups as each group of volunteers invents its own menu. We are lucky because a friend sends us hot food from catering on Saturdays. But in addition, we always have panini – sandwiches with sausage and hot tea. Now we also distribute masks, because of the quarantine.

As far as I know, the Community of St. Egidius is not the only organization that helps the homeless people. Who else does the same?

Yes, in total there are about ten organizations in Kyiv. There are also similar communities in other cities of Ukraine.

Yuriy Lifanse has been engaged in social work and helping homeless people for almost 30 years

In general, each of us can help homeless people. If you have seen a homeless person and want to help him, the first thing to do is talk to him. Say hello, ask his/her name, offer, for example, hot tea. And then you understand what exactly you can do.

What challenges did homeless people face during the lockdown?

Coronavirus is another cause of misery and poverty. Because the one who had received little began to receive even less. And those who had an unstable job lost it. The lockdown period was just awful. Everything was closed, Independence Square was empty. There were only police and homeless people. It was scary.

It was then that I first saw people who were not just hungry but also thirsty because even public toilets were closed. There was literally no access to water. We found a map of public pumps with potable water - only 12 of them for a city of five million.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine reported that due to quarantine people living in homelessness lost their already limited access to shelter, food, water, hygiene and sources of income. In many cases, the closure of railway and bus stations stripped homeless people of shelter and access to drinking water and hygiene, which is essential during a pandemic. The closure of recycling centers, which have been a source of income for many homeless people across the country, the closure of markets in spring, and the suspension of construction and operation of many small businesses deprived homeless people of the few opportunities to earn a living or ask for food.

Did anyone end up on the street because of the lockdown?

Yes. These are the people who had simple jobs - on a construction and loading site - just to find a penny a day and pay for a night in a hostel. During the lockdown they all found themselves on the street, where there was no food or water, nothing.

Now they also suffer because today, for example, it is more difficult to get to a hospital. All non-critical cases are sent back home. If I have a temperature of 38°, I just stay home, recover and nothing happens to me. For people who don't have home, it's just awful.

The most important problem here is to get a positive coronavirus test. That is, if there is a test that confirms a coronavirus infection, then you can be taken to the hospital and treated there. And it is unlikely if there is no test.

So, the difficulty is to do this test and get the result. But it's not just about homeless people.

I also know that due to the temporary closure of public transport, interregional and railway services, many have lost the opportunity to get home to the regions and villages. And those who had at least some work in Kyiv were deprived of the opportunity to get there.

It has been a challenge for poor people. After all, even if you are called and told that there is a job at the other end of the city, you can't get there.

Volunteers on Independence Square distribute hot tea and food to homeless people

In addition, when public transport was suspended in Kyiv, it also became a problem for us because our volunteers could not go to distribute food. Therefore, we began to organize such distributions at home in different areas.

There was a man who came to us on Independence Square for food distribution from Darnytsia - he walked for an hour and a half to get there. There were people who came from Obolon. It was very difficult.

Were those people who found themselves on the street because of the lockdown able to get to their feet after the strict restrictions were lifted?

People have simple, unstable, temporary jobs that do not let them to rent permanent housing. And this is a problem of the labor market. When these people lost jobs, men came to the distribution - ordinary hard workers who lost their jobs. But then they disappeared. Sometimes they even come back and give us a loaf [for food distribution on the street] as a token of gratitude.

What about personal protective equipment? Do you provide them for homeless people?

At first it was difficult when one mask cost UAH 30-40, and it was necessary to distribute 700 of them. Our friends helped us. They bought or sewed masks themselves to support the people. The mask was a kind of permit for a person because you could not go into a store or pharmacy without it.

Our volunteers also strictly adhere to quarantine regulations. We cook and distribute food only in masks, gloves, wash our hands regularly, constantly treat them with disinfectant. Everything is to protect our friends [homeless people].

Another important point is that with the introduction of quarantine we also had to tell people the news, explain what was happening. I mean , you go to the railway station on Friday, for example, and tell people: "You need to go home quickly because on Sunday the trains stop running." Otherwise they would not have this information.

There were people who asked what it was [quarantine, coronavirus]. So we printed out a lot of leaflets to explain what had happened. Imagine: a man slept in his basement, goes outside in the morning and sees an empty city and does not understand what is happening.

During the lockdown in spring homeless people were not able to isolate themselves and remained in an almost empty city without access to public toilets and water

Do you cooperate with Kyiv city authorities?

In early April 2020, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko commented on the situation with homeless people. It was obvious that they were in big trouble. Also, waste collection center for recycling were reopened in the first days of April, where homeless people could earn at least some money.

Already in the fall, after the local elections, the Kyiv City State Administration held two meetings with representatives of volunteer organizations regarding the problems of homeless people. It was a surprise to me. I think this is the beginning of a dialogue. This is the dialogue that international organizations encourage for, including the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission.

Indeed, the Mission advocated to establish such a dialogue to ensure participation in policy-making of those who defend the human rights of homeless people and better cooperation in delivering services to homeless people. According to the Mission, social services for the homeless people are provided unevenly in Ukraine as they depend on goodwill and funding from local authorities. Six regions of Ukraine have no shelters for homeless people funded by local authorities. Another region has a shelter that works only in winter. In four regions municipal shelters for homeless people did not accept new people through quarantine, and in other three regions homeless people had limited access to medical services to undergo a mandatory medical examination required by the shelters as a condition of admission. In one region, a municipal shelter accepts only homeless men leaving women without an access to shelter.

Are there any good initiatives that have emerged from the pandemic?

The pandemic helped us find something good. People were shocked by what had happened. Nobody has experienced this before. So, everyone started to come together around some small projects but thanks to that we managed to implement very big things.

We usually distribute 700 servings of food per week but  during the lockdown there was a week when we distributed 3,000 servings of full set meals.

We were preparing for a strict lockdown when we might not be allowed to leave the house at all, so we set up distribution points under our houses. And they still operate. For example, they exist in Obolon [a district in Kyiv] and in Solomianka [a district in Kyiv] thanks to neighbors, who have united to feed people on the street.

If we talk about homeless people, then there is not just a social distance but a wall between them and the city. We are against a social distance. Yes, you need to keep a physical distance so as not to transmit the virus. But we must support and protect each other in the society. This is the only way to survive. Especially in difficult times.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine calls on the central and local authorities to guarantee effective access for homeless women and men to medical testing and appropriate medical care, as well as information on the pandemic and ways to prevent the disease; to provide homeless women and men in all regions of Ukraine with access to shelters, clean water and hygiene products, food and livelihood opportunities, and to protect them from violence and abuse, including effective investigation of physical attacks on homeless persons.

Name one thing that, if changed, could significantly improve the situation for homeless people in Kyiv?

If we talk about the near future, it is the establishment of 24/7 warming centers in each district. Now there are none of them in Kyiv. But they need to be opened for the winter. This will help not only the homeless people but everyone else. For example, if homeless people stop spending nights in abandoned buildings, where they usually warm themselves by open fire, there will be fewer fires in Kyiv.

It is important to understand that homeless people have human rights as we do. The only difference from us is that they have no home. But they have the right to life, the right to food, the right to health. And these rights cannot depend on the social status of a person. And understanding this is the only way to build back Ukraine.


UN entities involved in this initiative
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights