Housing

Ukraine: One mother’s story of how she found herself facing homelessness in the UK

Ukrainian refugee Anna Bozhenko and her son found themselves homeless in London after arriving in the UK following Russia’s invasion

Ukraine homelessness Anna Bozhenko

Anna Bozhenko arrived in the UK in May but found herselve homeless after her six-month stay with hosts came to an end. Image: Emily Girvan for Beam

At 4am on February 24, 2022, Anna Bozhenko woke up to the sound of what she thought were fireworks. It was the sound of the first bombs landing near her native Kharkiv in Ukraine and the sound of her life and her son’s life changing forever

“At that moment, you want to start to cry, to be hysterical,” says Bozhenko. “But at the same time I understood that you have to put yourself together and start to think about what you have to do. I was, of course, very frightened and there’s a feeling that you don’t have a future. You don’t even have tomorrow.”

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After five nights of going to bed fully clothed in case she had to flee before sunrise, Bozhenko and her son were forced to leave their home for the relative safety of Lviv. The conflict followed and the next stop was Montenegro as Vladimir Putin’s war engulfed Ukraine

Then she applied for the Homes for Ukraine scheme – the Westminster government initiative that matched Ukrainian refugees with willing hosts and saw 114,400 Ukrainians head to the UK. 

Anna Bozhenko Ukraine homelessness
Bozhenko found work as a fashion and event artist in the UK but her self-employed status made it difficult in London’s rental market. Image: Emily Girvan for Beam

By May, Bozhenko had matched with a family and had a safe place for her 15-year-old son to call home in Brent, north-west London. “It was fine but, of course, it’s not easy,” the 38-year-old tells The Big Issue. “We had good relations but it’s not easy to live with someone when your whole life you have lived alone. We are very thankful to them and they hosted us and they gave us this opportunity and helped with the school. I’m very thankful.” 

But like many Ukrainians who came to the UK, once the six-month stint with their hosts came to an end, Bozhenko and her son faced a new reality: being homeless in a foreign country.

Government figures released on February 9 showed 4,295 households – including almost 3,000 with children – have contacted their local council in England for support with homelessness. More than 2,500 have done so after being originally hosted through the Homes for Ukraine scheme. 

Now Bozhenko, who applied for universal credit and used Instagram to find work as a fashion and event artist, had the daunting task of finding a new home to rent in London at a time when rents were soaring and 56,500 households were already living in temporary accommodation in the English capital. 

“I was very frightened of being homeless,” says Bozhenko. “I’m a positive-thinking person and I believed that everything would be settled and I was doing everything for that but, especially for the last month, it was a very stressful period. 

“I found the process the most difficult thing. In Ukraine when you come to view the flat you say yes if you want it and say: ‘Here is the deposit.’ Here they show it to everyone and then the tenant is chosen. I am self-employed, I was just in London for six months and I cannot show my tax return. I was not attractive to them. 

“It was very stressful. At one point I had a place in awful conditions which I had to refuse because they asked me for one year of rent in advance. It was crazy.” 

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In the end, Bozhenko’s local council connected her with social enterprise Beam, which uses online crowdfunders to help people experiencing homelessness start a new life. Beam managed to raise £3,800 for Bozhenko to cover a deposit and her first month’s rent. That meant she was able to secure a new home in Barnet, north London. That was 40 minutes away from her old home, crucially enabling her son to avoid further upheaval and stay in the same school. 

“I’m not too religious,” says Bozhenko. “But from that moment when we escaped our city all the time we have met good people who have helped us and still help us here, including Beam. It was a miracle. I’m so appreciative and thankful.” 

Anna Bozhenko Ukraine homelessness
Now she has found a place to live in London with the help of Beam, Bozhenko is looking to the future and hoping her son can complete his education in the UK. Image: Emma Girvan for Beam

Now Bozhenko and her son have overcome the trauma of finding themselves homeless she is looking forward to seeing her son finish his education. 

“My aim is to see him graduate here and I want to do my dream job,” says Bozhenko. “I’ve learned even when you’ve lost everything to try to look forward and not behind and just think about what you can do in your situation for the better.”

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