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Homeless in Ukraine: Former rough sleepers are supporting their shell-shocked compatriots in Kharkiv

Hundreds of people have been sheltering in metro and bomb shelters in Kharkiv for weeks. Father Vitaliy Novak, working for homelessness charity Depaul Ukraine, tells The Big Issue how the people he used to help are now his colleagues

As the conflict has raged on in Ukraine, life in Kharkiv has moved underground. Hundreds of people are taking shelter from Russian bombs in the subways and metro tunnels of the city in Ukraine’s north east, just 15 miles from the Russian border. Now homelessness support workers and even people who were homeless themselves before the war are risking their lives to help their countrymen survive.

Father Vitaliy Novak, the chair of trustees for the Ukrainian branch of international homelessness charity Depaul, has spent a week and a half in Ukraine’s second-largest city after delivering aid in cities across Ukraine. He told The Big Issue Kharkiv has been all but destroyed by the war.

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 “The current situation in Kharkiv is horrible. They are bombing day and night and they bombed very big gas pipes so now almost half of Kharkiv is without gas as well as electricity and water. I spent a week and a half in Kharkiv and there was no day where there was a silent night,” he told The Big Issue.

“For those people who are affected the most by the war and suffering, they are dealing with this every day. Every morning we leave our house and our community and we say to each other goodbye and it could be forever.

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Locked away from the outside world for their own safety, some of the children in Kharkiv have chosen to draw animals and nature to distract from the difficulties of day-to-day life. Image: Depaul International

“Those hugs every morning and in the evening, when we are back from our services delivering humanitarian aid, you start to value every second of this great gift you have. Because you see how many people are killed every day everywhere and how lives are destroyed in this terroristic war.”

With food, water and medicine in short supply, organisations like Depaul have been providing vital humanitarian aid to the people living underground, sometimes without power or light.

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Children sheltering underground greeted aid workers with drawings like this one from six-year-old Masha, which reads: “Victory, Victory, Victory”. Image: Depaul International

Father Novak and his volunteers deliver hot meals, bringing up to 70 litres of fresh soup and milk a day to shelters with cooking and storage facilities and tinned food to those without.

Father Novak said he has found growing communities and humanity rising above adversity in the most desperate of circumstances. People pitching in to make food, children drawing pictures to thank aid workers. Life is continuing in spite of the danger that lurks above ground.

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“In all this darkness you see light. During the last 36 days of war my happiest days have been in Kharkiv with these people because in all this darkness you can see how bright good people are. What they’re doing is amazing,” said Father Novak.

“They are traumatised and they are not sure what the next day will bring or if they will survive. In some bomb shelters there is no gas, no heating, no light. Some have, some don’t, but when they discover that someone is coming with humanitarian aid and the supplies we are bringing they are so happy.

“When I went to the shelters in Kharkiv, children were saying: ‘You are our saviour’ because they finally get chocolates and sweets after one month of sitting there. If somebody is coming they feel that somebody cares, somebody is trying to help and responding to their basic needs.”

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Despite the desperate circumstances, people sheltering in Kharkiv remain defiant. As shown in 10-year-old Antin’s drawing which proclaims: “We will win! Ukraine!”. Image: Depaul International

With many members of Father Novak’s team forced to leave Ukraine to protect their own families, the conflict has changed personnel in an unexpected way.

Now many of the service users who relied on Depaul to protect them from homelessness before the war are coming to the aid of people in underground shelters. 

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“We see the people and how they act,” said Father Novak. “Even our clients, the homeless people who were already living in our shelter before the war, have now discovered there are people in bigger need than them because they have a shelter.

“These guys have organised and they have started to cook the soup daily and bring it to mothers and babies in one metro station which is very close to our shelter. This is fantastic. For me these are miracles, this is people trying to help people.”

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Some of the children living in shelters have been drawing pictures of unity and calling for the war to end. Image: Depaul International

Matthew Carter, group chief executive of Depaul International, added: “Life in Ukraine has drastically changed since the conflict started one month ago. Anyone can become homeless in an instant and food is in short supply, especially in besieged cities like Kharkiv.

“Our more mobile residents are also distributing aid, meeting the aid trucks as they arrive, and taking items to vulnerable people’s homes. Last weekend, our Kharkiv volunteers delivered tinned food, vegetables, bread, toilet rolls and nappies to people who are not able to leave their homes, including a woman who had just given birth. In a war zone, this is an act of incredible bravery. 

“We are so proud of our shelter residents. Many have complex needs of their own, in terms of their physical and mental health, and past trauma. Some will have faced stigma and discrimination as a result of being homeless, yet they still have the strength to help the people who need it most.”

WIth the future uncertain, Depaul currently has a six-month plan to continue humanitarian aid across Kharkiv and Odessa, where the charity is still running shelters and providing sausage stew and bread to over 250 people every day.

The plan goes beyond simply helping people survive. Depaul is also putting in place plans for when the bombing stops to help people rebuild, well aware that a homelessness crisis will last longer than any conflict.

But for now Father Novak will continue risking his life to help others. For him, there is no other choice.

He said: “If you’re able to do something then you have this risk which may mean you have to pay with the thing that is the highest value: your life. I know about this and I accept this and I want to do as much as possible while I’m alive.”

Depaul International is appealing for cash donations to support humanitarian work in Ukraine. Head here to donate

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