Monday, December 7, 2015

Papers with Purpose in Ukraine

By: Austin Greene
Produced and edited by: Joshua Lim

A homeless Ukrainian man reading a newspaper. Local "streetpapers" in Ukraine 
hope to change negative image associated with homeless people.
(Photo courtesy of s8)

Three years ago, Yosyp Prokopyak crossed paths with an older man in the central Market Square of Lviv, Ukraine. The man was a magazine vendor selling copies of Prosto Neba, a “street paper” sold by the poor and homeless in the city. After learning about the magazine’s purpose, Prokopyak began to purchase it whenever he can.

Although the topics in Prosto Neba don’t interest him, Prokopyak said that he buys the magazine because it helps people.

“I actually don’t really even read it,” he said. “I never go any further than the table of contents. I'm doing this to support people who do something, and not just begging for money.”

Changing the negative image

Prokopyak said most people in Ukraine generally look down on homeless people.

“In my opinion, homeless people are treated badly here because we usually judge each other based on appearance, and appearance is not a strength of homeless people,” he said. “Sometimes, you’ll see them sleeping here and there all around the city – tussling, using staircases as a toilet and so on. 

"Nevertheless, there are a lot of good but unlucky guys among them, and I was fortunate to find a few.”

That negative image is exactly what Prosto Neba hopes to change. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union till 2006, the Ukrainian government had done very little to assist the homeless. In 2006, the government passed legislation to provide homeless shelters in the major cities. However, the negative stigma persists.

Maryana Sokha, the editor-in-chief of Prosto Neba, said the media in Ukraine perpetuates this stereotype. Prosto Neba seeks to challenge that image.

“In Ukraine we don't have good social journalism,” Sokha said. “Journalists usually use hate speech or, contrarily, try to cause pitiful emotions instead of analyzing or describing the issue the way it is. In Ukrainian journalism we also miss portraits of real heroes: people doing great things in everyday life and we miss stories of good social initiatives.”

ProstoNeba operates a community home where 25 people live and work together. The publication also employs five street vendors to sell the magazine to people who do not live within the community.

Sokha said anyone could contribute to the magazine, which is an important distinction from other media.

“It means that we create a space where all kinds of issues can be discussed and any person, either famous writers or homeless people, can have a voice in it,” Sokha said.

A network of streetpapers

Prosto Neba is part of a larger organization of streetpapers called the InternationalNetwork of Street Papers (INSP). The INSP is a Scottish NGO that helps new street papers organize.

The organization also offers support and guidance to its associated publications. Approximately 600 towns and cities worldwide have a street paper affiliated with the INSP. Collectively, the magazines employ 20,000 under-privileged vendors per year.

View of the Khreschatyk street at night in Kiev,
the capital of Ukraine.
(via Wikimedia)
Tim Harris is a board member of the INSP who also operates an award-winning street magazine in Seattle called Real Clear News.

“People often approach INSP or get referred to us when they're interested in starting a street paper,” Harris said. “Generally they'll approach a paper they're familiar with for advice, and that often leads them to the INSP. There's a start-up manual that we offer, and INSP staff is available for advice.”

INSP also provides additional content for streetpapers, which can be critical for start-ups.

“The main thing the INSP offers is a news service to share content," Harris said. "We just released an exclusive interview with the Pope for our papers. We also have an annual three-day conference.  We hosted this last year in Seattle and had 110 delegates from 32 countries.”

Spilnota Narodna Dopomoha is an organization that publishes a streetpaper, located in the capital of Kiev, where Ukraine’s largest homeless population lives. Spilnota offers many services to the poor in addition to their paper. 

Ludmila Alieva started Spilnota with a few of her friends in 2005. At that time, no other NGOs existed in Kiev to help the homeless.

“It took almost a year to get officially registered and receive a grant from the Dutch Embassy in Kiev to start a meals-on-wheels program in the streets of the city,” Alieva said. “Now in 2015, almost a decade after its start, the meals-on-wheels continues delivering meals, hygiene items and warm clothes to the socially-excluded people in the streets of Kiev.”

Spilnota relies mostly on public donations, which can be difficult to obtain in a country that has a negative view of its homeless population.

“In Soviet times, the homeless were considered either criminals or mentally ill, and were put either in prison, or even worse, a mental hospital,” Alieva said. “The streetpaper started as a side project of our social services, as we wanted the homeless people to have a job and income.

“However, we met a huge bottleneck that is the stigma to sell the 'homeless paper.' Many people here think it's humiliating for them.”

This problem forced Spilnota to create new ways to generate revenue while providing the homeless with more jobs at the same time.

“That's why we were searching for new ways to raise funds, and started a candle workshop,” she said. “All profits from candle sales go to cover the meals for the homeless project. However, so far we can't generate enough to cover all the expense.”

Spilnota continues to provide as many services despite its struggles with limited resources. In recent years, the paper has had to downsize due to lack of funding.

“We reduced the number of social workers to two, and the scope of our social services has diminished in the previous three years,” said Alieva. “In the recent years we survived two very cold winters when there were extremely low temperatures and people were freezing to death in the streets.”

The stigma continues to exist for the underprivileged, but new NGOs are finally setting up in Ukraine to help them. Meanwhile, Prosto Neba and Spilnota are far from finished.

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