ODESA, Ukraine – Since 1996 there's been one steady beacon of light for the homeless and street children in this Black Sea coastal city. Often struggling with drug addiction or HIV infections, Odesa's marginalized have always found help at The Way Home, an outreach center that helps the homeless mitigate the many life hazards they face.Now, the social group is helping a third category of people - displaced people from war-torn Donbas whose numbers have reached 1.45 million, according to the United Nations.
At the group’s main protection facility, located in the back of a courtyard in central Odesa social workers come and go from one building to another, while cats lazily rest in the morning sun, seemingly indifferent to this activity.
“When you come (there), you feel safe, you feel that it’s cozy and nothing will bother you anymore,” Evelyne Yaralova, office manager and translator of the social fund, told the Kyiv Post.
She speaks from personal experience having also been the recipient of assistance from the organization. Fleeing Russian-occupied Luhansk, and after a stay in Kyiv, she finally found assistance and solidarity at The Way Home center. There, following the advice of a friend, she found clothing, food, and, eventually, a job.
She is just one out of the 20,000 people the social foundation helps each year.
The Way Home was initially established to help those who ended up in the streets during the chaos of the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“There was a lot of homeless people in Ukraine, thousands of homeless people, and thousands of street children,” Sergey Kostin, founder of The Way Home, said.
Some were his friends. “They were drug users and some of them died, some of them went to prison and I just wanted to help them,” he told the KyivPost.
In 1996, he started monitoring the situation of homeless people to see what has to be done to help them.
Six workers initially joined the group, which has since grown to almost one hundred and fifty professionals and 11 centers in Odesa and the region. Their range of activity has expanded while becoming less a crisis response center to focusing more on prevention by working with families before they fall apart.
The most at-risk are the poorest who live in poverty. Although the number of homeless people has decreased since the 1990s, according to Kostin, the group still has 11,000 people registered as living without shelter in the Odesa region.
More worrying is the situation with drug users. The group has noticed that drug use starts earlier, and among children as young as 8 to 10 years old. They go in basements, abandoned buildings, to consume glue they heat before breathing it, or take pills like amphetamines.
At Smile Center, a bald man is seated in a wheelchair. He is one of the four survivors of a large group of teenagers, then aged 14-15, who lived on the streets in 2003. All were HIV positive.
The Way Home foundation is helping such people. A group patrols the streets to provide the homeless with food, clothes, and information to administer HIV tests.
Street children usually have their first point of contact with the social foundation’s Mercy Center. They can rest here during the day, eat and find clothes as well as take a shower and take care of themselves. They still live in the streets, however, but are offered rehabilitation programs at The Way Home centers. More than 1,000 still choose to live on the streets.
Rehabilitation comes in many forms. Children and teenagers are offered care and housing, meetings with psychologists, and participation in various workshops and classes.
One of the foundation’s biggest successes is its homeless football team. “Football is the main form of rehabilitation for kids” as it erases the barriers between people, Oleg Vannik, the coordinator of The Way Home’s football program, told the KyivPost. Playing a sport instills pride in the the players.
The group’s team twice won the European Homeless Championship, and in 2009, they won the Homeless World Cup in Milan. Their trophies cover many of the shelves at the foundation’s office.
Their success has inspired the children to start their own team.
Yet, despite its many successes, the Ukrainian homeless team lacks sponsors, while the next world cup is to take place in Amsterdam on September 12-19, with 74 countries participating. The team has all the equipment it needs, but is not able to hire a coach, undermining the progress of the players. The team could only hire a bus for two days to go to Amsterdam, but cannot afford to enter other competitions.
Support has come from local donors as well as from international organizations, such as the United Nations Fund for Children (UNICEF), the Childhood Foundation of the Queen of Sweden and the Global Fund for Turbeculosis, Malaria and HIV.
The situation has grown more difficult with the arrival or war refugees from Luhansk and Donetsk. The premises of Smile Center, initally meant to welcome street children and teenagers, are not big enough to welcome the flow of refugees. The gym hall at the center, once dedicated to physical rehabilitation, is now full of camp beds.
People in Odesa understand the plight of displaced people and are willing to help them, Kostin said. Some may be aggressive “because they are hurt,” he added.
“They accept their surroundings as enemies,” office manager Yaralova said. “In the beginning most of the kids are aggressive, or (they) just close themselves off,” she added. Since many of the displaced people blame Kyiv for the conflict, the social workers try bringing them peace.
In general the foundation does not get involved in politics, said Kostin, and has been able to work with the many governments who took power in post-Soviet Ukraine. They however welcomed the EuroMaidan Revolution.
“Now we are free, we think that we can do our work without being afraid of (the) government,” he said.
In the past, when officials did not appreciate the foundation or its members, they would threaten to shut it down, Kostin said. He also said that the current authorities share their vision of helping the people.
The organization, through its actions and many successes, has indeed become inescapable. This in turn has inspired them to forge ahead. Kostin when the group helped a teenager aged 17, who had been separated from his parents ten years earlier. The social workers eventually found his family. When his father saw him, he fainted. Now, father and son work together.
“A lot of our children have their own families, many of them work…many of them study in university,” Kostin said.
Yves Souben staff writer can be joined at firstname.lastname@example.org