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A Ukrainian homeless man sits at a shopping window
Over 100 people have frozen to death on Ukrainian streetsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Warmth in the cold

February 7, 2012

Hundreds have died as the cold spell in eastern Europe continues. The hardest hit nation is Ukraine, and it's where the homeless, living on the streets, are receiving unexpected help.


With temperatures forecast to remain well below freezing throughout eastern Europe for at least another week, the region's homeless are facing an all-out fight for survival.

In Ukraine, the hardest hit country, over 1,200 people are currently receiving medical treatment for hypothermia, according to government data.

The Emergencies Ministry said hospitals in Kyiv had been asked to keep patients admitted even after their treatment had ended, in order to protect them from the extreme temperatures that are forecast to plunge as low as minus 30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) until the middle of February.

A medical worker helps a Ukrainian woman
Over 1200 people are receiving treatment for hypothermiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Yulia Yershova, spokeswoman for the Emergencies Ministry, told Deutsche Welle that thousands of shelters were being set up throughout the country to help the homeless survive the cold.

The head of the ministry, Grygoriy Marchenko, told reporters Monday that the government had done everything it could to help the homeless, claiming that alcohol abuse - and not lack of state support - was to blame for the 135 cold-related deaths that have been confirmed thus far.

Hot tea and sandwiches - 'not enough'

Not everyone in Ukraine would believe Marchenko's claim that "everything in the government's power" has been done to help the homeless survive the extreme temperatures, however.

According to Mariya Manzhos, who writes for the daily Kyiv Post, the "shelters" that have been provided by the government are tents that allow homeless to merely warm up. Most homeless are forced to spend the night on the street or near the capital's central train station - where the government has ordered workers not to "chase anybody out."

"There aren't really any shelters here where the homeless can escape the cold for the night. At the moment they are being allowed to sleep in manholes and in the basements of some buildings, but most are forced out onto the street as always," Manzhos told Deutsche Welle.

A homeless man warms in a tent built by Ukrainian rescuers
Tent shelters aren't a viable solution for Ukraine's homelessImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The Ukrainian government provides no federal money for homeless shelters, leaving cities and their homeless at the mercy of the cold that visits the former Soviet state every winter - albeit in milder form than this year.

But there are some organizations that are leaving their doors open - night and day - in the midst of this cold spell, among them "Social Partnership," a Kyiv-based charity organization that owns and operates Kyiv's largest social center.

The organization's president, Artem Makeev, said the government was now regretting that it doesn't do more to help the homeless, since the emergency shelters being set up by authorities represented no "real solution" to the problem.

"Hot sandwiches and tea and blankets are nice, but they won't help people get through the night, when it's the coldest," Makeev said. "Now the government wants to help. They tell the people to have compassion. But there is nothing they can do. It's too late. Hundreds have died. And the government can only regret this."

Changing mentality

Makeev said, however, more private donations had been made this year than ever before - ranging from food stuffs to blankets and clothes - and that this perhaps signaled an "important" change with regard to how Ukrainians view the homeless.

"We've never seen this before. People are coming and giving us things to give to the homeless. This is different. And important."

In Soviet times, in particular, the homeless were considered a hindrance to society, with most seen as alcoholics or criminals who hadn't earned their existence.

But with this cold spell a new warmth has been observed among the people in these countries. In Poland, another ex-Soviet state that has suffered under the cold, there has been an outpouring of support.

A woman receives food in a drive for the homeless in Kyiv, Ukraine
Ukrainians have seen an outpouring of altruism latelyImage: UCF Social Partnership

Jakub Wilczek, of the St. Brother Albert's Aid Society in Wroclaw, said that the extreme cold defied a "general pattern" of aversion to homelessness in eastern Europe.

"When the weather gets really cold, people tend to see a human being in a homeless person and they are more open to the idea of helping them," said Wilczek, who is on the board of the European Federation of National Organizations working with the Homeless (FEANTSA), a European NGO based in Brussels that helps people deal with the threat of homelessness.

"Usually people say that the homeless are bums and drunks who deserve their fate. But when I talk to the same people at a time like this, they seem to care a lot about the situation and genuinely want to help. And they do help by donating money or bringing clothes to the shelters."

Back in Kyiv, Makeev said that this warmth was what the government needed to overcome the coldness of Ukrainian authorities towards homelessness in general - but not just for the time being, while it's still cold, but on a consistent basis in the form of a social system that lends support to the homeless year round.

Author: Gabriel Borrud
Editor: Joanna Impey

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