Day 1 draws to a close – and we have spent the afternoon visiting schemes across Kharkiv. The first was an amazing children’s centre, that had been set up specifically to deal with the issue of street kids. When it started over 7 years ago, there were anything up to 50 street children at a time requiring support from the centre. Since then, there has been a number of policy changes, which has increased the level of fostering within the Ukraine, and has reduced sigfnificantly both the number of children in orphanages, and also the number of children who were living on the streets. With some very honest discussions within the project, there was a strong recognition of the celebration that this reduction has caused, but also a recognition that the offer from the centre had to change to recognise the change in potential clients.
When we arrived at the centre we were greeted by bouncy 8 year olds, fresh from working with a great team of student volunteers – who had been running arts, crafts and sports activities. The centre included a good range of access to counselling, advice and importantly a safe and secure space for children and young people to attend up to three days a week. However, in the absence of street kids, who were the children who were still using the service? The social work leading the project, Alyanna, recognised the need being driven by families in crisis. Through a positive relationship with social care teams, families at risk were identified and children referred direct to the centre. There they are provided with skills to develop resilience, connection across communities and an opportunity for social workers to work through a preventative strategy to support them within their family unit.
We then followed the DePaul team over to the government shelter – over in the East of the city. There, in a building and land gifted by the city, was the only direct access provision available. The team of DePaul volunteers were involved in providing hot food and support to those using the shelter, which was divided into emergency provision, and provision for those who stayed for longer periods whilst receiving support, particularly those who had recently left prison. We are here during a surprisingly mild period, and I can only imagine the pressure on the service when the temperature drops to -35. The centre has only been open for three years, and as each winter passes the demand for services grows exponentially. Last winter as the temperature dropped, there were over 100 seeking shelter each night. When they were groaning at the seams, people were still turning up, recognising that they wouldn’t get a bed, but asking still just to come in and stand for the night.
Staff talked extensively about their work linked to helping residents to regain critical identification papers, without which access to other services, resources, accommodation or work are out of the question. This is a particular issue for anyone who has had stays in prison, or for those with a physical disability. The work to regain ID’s is tortuous, but the centre is developing expertise in understanding the different pathways to help residents regain their identity and there was a huge commitment and skill base within the group of those offering this critical role.
As ever, the stories of those who are homeless are the glue to any service. We had a chance to talk with Juraj, who was the first ever resident of the government shelter. His need for a roof over his head was paramount, and the security and support it had provided had changed his life. He had spent many years in an orphanage and on leaving had fairly quickly gone into the prison system. The shelter provided a way out of that pattern, and he was now in a position where he had stability in his life, was able to work, but not yet in a position to have enough money to move into independent accommodation. There is no straightforward pathway, halfway house or move on available, so the gulf between where he is now and where he wants to be remains significant. It is clear that he is well loved and supported in the centre – but also that whilst he values that – his next stated ambition is a family he can call his own – and that he has chosen for himself.