Street children find beacon of light and hope at drop-in center
Winston Churchill once said: “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” It is in this spirit that KP Media, publisher of the Kyiv Post, undertakes Holiday Wishes in all four issues of December. Economic times are hard for everyone, but always hardest for those with the least. This series will spotlight charitable organizations that help the needy. Today’s story is about Caritas-Ukraine, a Kyiv drop-in center for homeless and other teens.
OTHER STORIES IN THIS SERIES:
Miserable and destitute, they don’t aim high. Having nothing and nobody behind them, street teenagers seek food, warmth and simple entertainment.
Natasha, 19, already a mother, is one of them. She left her home at age 13. Since then, she has endured hunger and beatings on the street. But she remains defiantly proud.
“I’ve never stunk or been dirty” was almost the first thing Natasha said, dismissing stereotypes about the homeless. Indeed, quite tidily dressed in jeans and a pink jacket, she doesn’t fit the common image of a street girl. Yet her tired face and sad eyes partly reveal her dramas and traumas.
Natasha is a frequent guest at Caritas-Ukraine’s Kyiv center, a place where the homeless come for free dinners, clean clothes, basic medicine and words of encouragement.
Located in the Voskresenka district in Kyiv’s left bank bedroom community, Caritas occupies part of the local housing services office building (ZHEK). The location can hardly be described as convenient, but the free-rent option for 10 years made it too good to pass up.
Apart from the dining room, Caritas boasts a laundry, several recreational rooms and even a hairdresser – all serving at least 30 teens that frequent it. But it does not provide overnight stays.
Founded by the Greek Catholic Church, Caritas-Ukraine has a number of projects in place through the organization’s network across Ukraine. One of the projects, funded by the German government, helps street teenagers achieve a normal life – or at least survive.
Natasha, whose last name is not being published because of her vulnerability and youth, is one of Caritas’ targeted teens. Sitting at the dinner table at Caritas, she shared her life story. Natasha left home six years ago, after her mother died. The tragedy prompted Natasha’s father to bring a new woman into the house. They started abusing alcohol.
“Life was so unbearable that I decided to run away from home,” Natasha said.
Kyiv’s train station became her first shelter, the starting point of her homeless life. “At first, it was very scary to stay there, but then I got used to it,” Natasha said. She started sniffing glue and eventually was impregnated by a street partner, whom she didn’t want to talk about.
Caritas’ daily visitors can share a great deal of stories, many of them sadly true. Their reality is harsh.
“I gave birth to my son, Bohdan, in my Kyiv flat,” Natasha said. “Only my stepmother and a friend were present. We had no money on our cell phones and couldn’t call an ambulance.”
Soon, after two months, Natasha and newly-born Bohdan were kicked out of their rented room and left stranded on the street. “I had everything for my son, diapers and even child-care cream,” she said.
Natasha talked about her son in the past tense because authorities took him away from her nearly a year ago, when she was walking with him on the streets. She hasn’t seen him since.
Natasha has been a regular at Caritas for the last six months. Free food is not the only draw. In order to get her son back, Natasha needs at least a passport, which she doesn’t have. She hopes to finally get it with the help of Caritas activists who sometimes take on the burden of dealing with bureaucracy.
“Most of them have never been taught how to live in this society,” said Tamara Hlushchenko, a psychologist at Caritas-Ukraine. “Therefore, we sometimes go with them to different agencies simply to help them communicate with officials and also try to help them find a job.”
Father Ihor Tyzhnyk, director of Caritas-Ukraine’s Kyiv office, also noted that most street teens are helpless in many aspects of life.
“We just literally have to take them by the hand and go with them to hospitals...they are just not socialized,” he said, adding that sometimes Caritas even manages to find jobs and accommodation for street youngsters.
Hlushchenko is one of five Caritas workers who work with the homeless full-time. Teens gather in her office after dinner, peppering her with questions, requests and comments. Many are just seeking warmth.
Caritas-Ukraine is a welcome respite from street life, filled with addictions and other bad habits acquired on the streets. For some, the Caritas-Ukraine agency can be a turning point in their lives.
“Of course, I can’t say that all of them stop sniffing glue or become decent citizens immediately, but we help them survive and outline some guidelines,” Father Tyzhnyk said.
“There are many talented persons among them. Some draw. Some even write poems. But it takes so much time and efforts to convince them to hone their talents,” Hlushchenko said. “We want to give them a fishing rod, but they expect fish. Still, we’ve got what I call [tiny] successes and this gives inspiration.”
Inspiration, devotion and patience are essential companions in jobs like this, working with street teens who have experienced crime, drugs and violence.
Caritas in Latin means "mercy" and it's mercy that Caritas-Ukraine workers suggest even in response to aggression. With the winter cold driving more teens off the streets and into Caritas-Ukraine for help, the agency is in particular need of donations of warm clothes, toys for the smallest children and food for dinners.
Life on the streets is disillusioning, but hasn’t killed the dreams of Natasha. And, thanks to Caritas-Ukraine, she’s got a chance.
HOW TO HELP
This is the Ukraine branch of an
international charity foundation, started in 1994 and affiliated
with the Greek-Catholic Church. Caritas-Ukraine has a number of
social and humanitarian aid projects. Detailed information can
be found at www.caritas-ua.org
. They can be reached at +38
(044)5120085. Besides money, Caritas-Ukraine is in need of
clothing, toys and food.
Financial donations can be made to the following bank account: