After a long and eventful night on the train – we arrived – at 8.00am precisely – in the port of Odessa. We were met by Father Jan, who was to take us out towards the Daughters house out by the Black Sea. We drove past a long boulevard of houses, all of which looked as if they had gone up in the last 5-10 years – which were the holiday homes of Russians wanting a vacation by the Black Sea.
The Daughters of St Vincent provided the most amazing hospitality, a shower and a chance to revive after the long journey – and I began to fully understand the connection between how the DePaul services operate in partnership with the catholic community in Ukraine. The nuns that we met were to reappear later in the day, administering medication and support to the homeless men and women of Odessa. They had received full medical training as nurses or social workers, and then dedicated their life to serve under the order of St Vincent, which has charity as a calling.
We then went to visit the day centre which had been established in Odessa over the last two years. Based in a residential cul de sac, the day centre provides facilities for twelve (maximum sixteen) homeless people a day. Because of the location, it is not possible for people to come to the centre directly, and so people are identified on the basis of highest need, at the food and medical station in the heart of the city, and then driven directly to the centre. They have one day a week which is women only, and women are able to come and get clothes, have a shower, get a haircut and have vital medical help. There are lots of medical challenges, partly because the hospital service won’t respond sometimes to medical emergencies for clients because of their inability to pay. The sisters of charity support the project, and are trained nurses and social workers, so come to the centre every day to support the staff and provide vital medical help. Many of the clients have terrible wounds, often from dog bites. The weather conditions mean that in the summer, clients are suffering from sun burn and dehydration from heat, and in winter, the extreme cold runs risks of frost bite.
One of the key services on offer in the day centre is centred around the recurring theme of lack of ID. The centre works with the clients around the issue of document recovery – to support people to reclaim their id papers.
There is a Government shelter is in the city – and de Depaul can refer people directly to the shelter. People can stay in the shelter for one month for free, and then can stay on with 150 grevna per month. Those who stay there can take a shower, clothes etc…. The precise size of the homeless population is unknown, but the fact that DePaul has worked with over 4000 unique individuals at the feeding station over the last 2 years provides an indication of the scale. Because of this, access to the day centre, and the showers, clothing, support that it offers is rationed to once every three weeks – prioritised very much on the basis of need.
Interesting parallels with UK homeless provision emerged in discussions with the staff at the day centre. They had identified that there were two very distinct groups of homelessness, those who are long term homeless, and those who are new to the street. Much like the current UK focus on ‘No second night out’ they were seeking to work as priority and as quickly as possible with those new to the street. They recognised that this was the most effective work and have been engaged in some really successful mediation with Depaul brokering a connection and sending people home to their own city. Odessa, partly because of its geographical location, and because of port status does attract a lot of people from other cities and countries – hoping to find work
Our final destination was to the mobile feeding and medical centre. This usually took the form of a large single decker bus, providing some dry space for medical support and to talk with those new to the service. On this day, the bus was not available (a long and enlightening story!) but the service was still on offer from a much smaller van. We found the van parked up in a park very near the station and surrounded by roads leading off from the station. 60 or 70 come to this site every day. – and twice a week go to another market as well where they might see an additional 70 people. At least 30 people get medical attention at the bus. Because the bus was unavailable – medical support was being offered next to the van – and whilst the best efforts were made to maintain some dignity, the van was parked by the roadside, on a busy thoroughfare. Critical interventions being made, but in far from ideal settings. I spent some time talking to the guys coming to the feeding and medical centre, and it is clear that this service represents an absolute life line.
Our final discussions were around what longer term provision the city needed. There are high hopes that in the near future there will be an opportunity to develop a purpose built centre to provide the critical medical support, and those services offered by the day centre. This would be a fantastic step forward for those living on the streets in Odessa. The commitment and energy of those providing support has been quite overwhelming, and to date – there has been huge amounts of evidence to show that Depaul and those working within the community to support their services have not only a strong and clear vision – but also a very significant track record of bringing vision into reality. The London Housing Foundation funding has played a small part in supporting this work, and I feel privileged to have been party to some of those decisions, and inspired to think – what next?