Street children in Ukraine are among the most vulnerable groups to get HIV/AIDS
Three stories about homeless children that live in the streets and risk to get HIV/AIDS everyday
Kiev, June 2010. With social workers Leonid, Eugene and Sashko, we headed out to search for homeless adolescents. First off we met some homeless children on the city outskirts, at a drop-off facility for scrap metal and glass. Some boys and a girl had found temporary shelter there. In the past they had lived in an old shed on the premises, but someone had set it on fire and now they had to seek out a new place to live.
Viktor gave a slight kick to the sooty door, which was opened by a sleepy man who was more than likely homeless. We came in and saw the sooty walls and a burnt-through ceiling. Remains of charred trash were scattered around. “I escaped through the roof before the firemen arrived,” said Viktor, pointing to the hole in the roof. To show what he meant he jumped, neatly grasped a charred board and was outside in no time.
This was his second lucky escape from a fire. Some years ago, in fact, he saw his mother, an alcoholic, die in one after she fell asleep in bed with a burning cigarette. When Viktor awoke, the house was on fire. He tried but failed to rescue his mother and hardly escaped the fire himself.
“My mother was a drunkard and made me beg. When she died I was put in the orphanage in Cherkassy. I ran away from there because it was boring and the boys bothered me,” the adolescent said, briefly and without enthusiasm explaining how, a year ago, he found himself in the street.
Viktor took a cigarette from his pocket and started smoking like an adult. “Do you have any other relatives?” I asked him.
“My grandmother died, but we had never been close with her anyway. I have an older brother, Lyosha, who lives somewhere in America,” the orphan answered. “He didn’t live with us. My grandmother took him from my mother when I was very small. Lyosha graduated from the engineering institute and left. We haven’t seen him since. He probably doesn’t even know our mother died.” Viktor threw away the cigarette butt and asked to change the subject. So we switched to pleasant things – love and dreams. The boy confessed that he’s fallen in love with a certain Angela. “She isn’t from our circle. She has a family and goes to her grandmother for vacation. We got acquainted when she came out for a walk.” Angela returned to her parents, but Viktor hoped that he would see her again later in the summer. To my question of whether he has any dreams, the boy answered that he didn’t, but if someone gave him a million dollars he would buy an apartment and live there all by himself for a long time, because he was very tired.
We would gladly have talked to him some more, but the truck full of empty bottles arrived and he was called over to count them. Drop-off facility workers give the homeless kids food, allow them to watch TV and pay them a little money for odd jobs.
In another part of the city, Sashko and some of his friends, street boys like him, help packers. When we came the boys were eating lunch – instant noodles with onions and bread. “It’s hard to find a job now,” said Sashko, spooning up the noodle soup. “I worked for a while at a construction site but then the project was shut down and I couldn’t find work for a long time.”
In exchange for the homeless adolescents’ work, the packers feed them and let them charge their cell phones. Recently Sashko came of age and he’s happy nobody will put him back into a boarding school for orphans. He’s been living on the street for three years. His mother is dead and his father is in prison. He said that he had a row with the director of the vocational programme at the boarding school, and escaped.
With Sashko’s permission the social workers applied to the Ministry of Education and Science with a request to enroll him back in the vocational programme. He’d be studying in it now but he changed his mind at the last moment and left Kiev. He had not stopped looking for a job but nobody had offered him one.
The railway station accommodates a large number of homeless adolescents. Olenka, who claimed to be 20 but really can’t be more than 16, is one of them.
Olenka is surprisingly cheerful and sociable. Talking with her, one forgets that she’s an orphan who often spends her nights on the street. “I just returned from Feodosia,” she said. “I clean railcars and in exchange the train hostesses allow me to sleep in the wagon and give me food. When the train gets to Feodosia I have a whole four hours to swim in the sea and get a tan.”
Olenka was orphaned when her parents were killed in a motor accident. “I was at the hospital with nephritis then,” she says, remembering that terrible day. “My parents went to a birthday party for their relative and the next day a nurse told me that they had died. I fell into hysterics.” At that point, there was no one to give her shelter, and it wasn’t easy for her to accept her fate. She repeatedly ran away from her boarding school for orphans and finally decided never to return to it again.
By that time the girl had made many friends among the homeless kids at the railway station. “My parents left me a lot of possessions and when I came to Kiev I brought my friends a lot of clothes,” she says, explaining how she established the contacts she needed on the street.
She said that when she came to Kiev she was hired as a saleswoman in a kiosk. For the first two months everything was okay, but then the kiosk owner counted up the proceeds and found almost 2,500 hryvnas missing. She forced Olenka to work for free for several months to compensate the loss. “For a long time I didn’t dare look for another job,” she said.
Olenka has been living on the street for eight months. Like all girls, she dreams about a true love that will come along and change her life forever. “I don’t care about the colour of his eyes or hair,” she says, describing the boy who will fall in love with her and take her away from the street. “But of course he should have something going for him and a good sense of humour. The main thing is to have someone next to you whom you trust.”
HIV status is the most important issue for street children such as Viktor, Olenka and Sashko. The underage homeless belong to an HIV risk group. What specialists call ‘risky behaviour’ is a daily way of life for the homeless. Every child on the street has to join a street group in order to survive. To be accepted the child must follow the same behavioural patterns as the rest of the group. Members of such groups usually smoke, drink, use drugs or sniff glue. Girls are often involved in transactional sex for a living. Offering sexual services in exchange for money is a widespread practice.
In addition, street children are acutely lonely. Wanting to feel loved and accepted, they start their sexual lives early. For most of them, sexual intercourse is the same as a friendly hug. It’s impossible to change long-established risky lifestyles in this milieu, but it is possible to safeguard street children against dangerous infections and to provide assistance. That’s why, several times a week, social workers, representatives of NGOs and volunteers come out in search of the homeless. When the homeless kids saw us they didn't run away but instead shared their experiences with us, which is the result of several years’ worth of of Leonid, Eugene and Sashko’s efforts.
Street children are apprehensive about adults who are interested in their lives. However, if you manage to establish contact with a street group leader it is much easier to communicate with the others. After you win trust you can speak with the children openly. NGO workers who provide assistance to street children speak to them both individually and in groups about the dangers of HIV and STI infection and of other blood-borne diseases. They answer the kids’ questions. At the end of the conversations the adolescents are provided with condoms and informational booklets with plain descriptions of HIV, syphilis and other venereal diseases. The booklet also contains addresses and telephone numbers of charity and social services organizations, hospitals and drop-in centres where one can get tested for HIV, pick up free condoms, exchange syringes and receive counseling from substance abuse therapists. In addition, social workers propose getting HIV tests at special low-threshold offices.
Viktor and Sashko agreed to get tested. They sighed with relief after the results came back negative. Olenka is going to visit the low-threshold office at the AIDS centre in the nearest future. Everyone who visits the office is advised to take a test every six months. Those who are HIV positive, meanwhile, receive the necessary assistance.