Interview with Oleh Kryshchenko, administrator of the Kyiv shelter for LGBT+ people and their families

National LGBTI Consortium

The work of large socially important projects is impossible without a strong team. In the previous article, we spoke with Oksana Dobrovskok, the coordinator of the Alliance.Global shelter project. Today we interviewed Oleh Kryshchenko, the administrator of the Kyiv shelter. How such work affects the psycho-emotional state, what challenges we face in building a safe space for IDPs, and what will happen to the shelters if Russia loses this war – read more in the article!

Greetings, Oleh. Tell us about your experience working with LGBT+ communities.

I have been working with Alliance.Global for five years. I started as a social worker in the organization’s HIV service area, preventing and testing the organization’s “clients” for HIV, hepatitis, and STIs. As time went by, I started working on other projects; at one point, there was even a lot of them *laughs*. Before I became a shelter administrator in Kyiv, I worked on a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) project. We had to respond quickly to the changes when there was a large-scale invasion of Russia. I was offered to become the administrator of our shelter, which already existed then. At the moment, I am performing several functions, working as an administrator, a documenter, and a case manager at the same time.

You said that the Kyiv shelter was operating before the full-scale military aggression of the Russian Federation. What challenges do you see in your work now?

The project has grown a lot. The biggest challenge for me is the need for more time. We receive many requests for help, and we must respond to them as quickly as possible and provide quality services. In addition to shelter, we also help those LGBT+ people who do not need it. This can be humanitarian aid, food, hygiene kits, or targeted financial support. Another equally important challenge is helping with re-socialization. Due to the problematic situation in the country, we have to spend a lot of time helping our guests find jobs or new housing when their time in the shelter ends.

Who are your guests?

Mostly MSM (men who have sex with men) and transgender people. Most of them are internally displaced persons affected by the Russian military aggression. The guests are different, and the cases are different. Often, people have lost their homes because of homo-transphobia in their families, and we help such people. In addition to a safe space, transgender people get help from us to continue their “transition”; we have a friendly endocrinologist they can talk to about their problems.

What other help do you offer your guests?

We have a friendly psychotherapist, and we already have successful rehabilitation cases. We also help with the restoration of documents that may have been lost when our guests fled to us from dangerous regions of the country…

About rehabilitation. What happens to guests who have already left the shelter?

Most of those who stayed with us have already found their own housing or a new job. There is also an adorable case: recently, a trans* girl who lived with us found a man and plans to marry him in Lviv. We are very happy for her!

Can you say that life in the shelter has become better?

We can say yes! Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, life in the shelter has only gotten better, not least because we now have significant resources for its operation and have begun to seek additional funding.

Do you have a centralized system for working with shelters? You have three shelters, many applications, and people who will live with or with you. How does that process work from the inside?

Compared to the past, we did not have a system. We worked “as is, “receiving an application, processing it, and inviting or rejecting the guest, depending on the interview results. We are working to make this process faster and easier for all our administrators. The project, as mentioned before, has expanded a lot. We are developing a technological solution to speed up the processing of applications, purchase all the necessary supplies from the shelters, etc.

We are very interested in your experience as a shelter administrator in Kyiv. Can you tell us about it?

Since I have been working with Alliance.Global for many years, I have gained a lot of experience working with different people. Working in the shelter, I have grown a lot as an employee and person; I have to solve many problems of varying degrees of “difficulty.” In 2022, I have improved my soft and hard skills a lot. I have worked on many interesting cases, interesting for me as a person and engaging from the point of view of the whole organization. Different things happen. Some guests were shot at as they tried to leave the active combat zones, and we had to hide someone from some pursuers. There was an incident where we had to go to a shelter with a psychologist at two in the morning, during curfew, because a person had a panic attack and was trying to commit suicide… Sometimes guests come to us without shoes, clothes, whatever they managed to get out of there… There have been cases where people have lived under the blockade for a long time, and we had to find the proper diet because they could not eat average food after a prolonged hunger strike. As you can imagine, it is a very unique experience. I started to work more with partner organizations, and I want to mention KyivPride and Convictus-Ukraine, with whom we have established friendly relations. We have even found a long-distance network with different organizations, and we help each other and refer people when necessary.

You’ve told us about some pretty horrible cases. How common are they?

Sometimes our shelters are designed for people like that, no matter how it sounds. People who are fine do not come to us. It’s the complex cases where people have lost almost everything and have nowhere else to go. How often do they come? It’s 50/50.

Can you tell us more about the needs of the guests? What are their most pressing needs?

Help with housing is the most urgent request. This is followed by financial assistance, medical and psychotherapeutic assistance for specific needs. We are often asked to help with the restoration of documents. Some people are terrified of the army, especially those who barely escaped the blockade or the war zones. Unfortunately, there are cases when people ask for help to get out of the temporarily occupied territories, for example, from the Kharkiv and Kherson regions… We are very sorry, but there is almost nothing we can do in this case; the most we can do is to support them with information and keep in touch with them.

Who else works with the guests at the Kyiv shelter beside you?

I perform the functions of a documentarian, a social worker (case manager), and an administrator. In fact, I do most of the work alone. To save money and redirect it to the needs of the shelter, it was decided to combine all functions into one. The project coordinator, Oksana Dobrovskok, also does a great job. We are also supported by psychotherapist Alla Kurbanova and professional medical consultant Andriy Kosinov.

Do you have enough humanitarian aid?

It is enough, but we would like to have more *laughs*. We cover the primary needs of our guests, but it would be great to open a second shelter in Kyiv. In the long run, we need much more than we have now.

Looking ahead, what are the future plans for the shelter?

To create a semi-automatic system for new guests. To make the shelter’s funding more stable, to attract additional grants for the development of the refuge because now it is partially funded by the well-known organization CO “100% Life” and largely depends on private donations and small temporary grants. Get rid of the paperwork. Expand the shelter, as we are already experiencing a lack of space and often have to refuse to accept new residents. Establish volunteer work because the shelter has become a “project within a project,” which takes a lot of time.

The last question concerns you. You manage the shelter in Kyiv non-stop; how do you find the strength to do it and not burn out?

It’s wartime. There’s no other way. Although challenging, I keep myself in good shape to maintain my physical and mental health. None of us involved in this project can afford to be weak because the loss, even temporary and even of one participant, jeopardizes the work of one or all of our shelters.

You want to go on vacation, don’t you?

I would rather have a little rest and, at the same time, acquire some knowledge necessary for work. Before the Russian invasion, we often held training in the field. And now we must spend money on tranquilizers *laughs*.

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