Ukraine’s first-ever LGBT shelter forced to close after running out of money

It looked like any other Eastern bloc-style building, but a four-bedroom apartment in the capital of Ukraine was, for five years, a crucial lifeline for the country’s LGBT+ community.

Now it’s gone.

An LGBT+ shelter in Kyiv ran out of money and was forced to close its doors, severing off a pocket of protection in a war-tugged country where citizens and officials divide on queer rights.

Opened by the LGBT+ non-government organisation Insight in 2014, it became the first shelter specifically to house queer folk. But organisers folded the hostel after a struggle with funding, they confirmed to PinkNews.

LGBT+ Ukrainians fleeing from military conflict and disowned by families no longer have a safe space. 

LGBT+ people have for years taken cabs or walked on foot to get to the shelter, displaced by the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia.

Ukraine, a former Soviet state, was split, the east wanting to align with Russia and the west with the European Union.

It created a patchwork of occupied territories straining eastern Ukrainians, who fled west to escape the conflict between Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian separatists. Around 100,000 lives have been claimed by the conflict, dubbed by advocacy groups as a humanitarian criss.

But the estimated one million displaced citizens, according to the United Nations, then encountered discrimination when applying for housing and employment. Blamed for the war.

An estimated 8,000 people attended Ukraine’s biggest ever Pride parade (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

The demand for a safety net for LGBT+ Ukrainians came after Donbass, gripped in unrest, was taken over by pro-Russian forces in 2014.

Russia’s controversial 2013 law banning materials that is seen to promote homosexuality was extended into Donbass, where a legislation mirroring Russia’s was implemented only intensifying the need for LGBT+ people to re-migrate.

Insight needed to act. Organisers first opened the shelter, a grey apartment block in a sleeping district on the city’s outskirts, in the summer of 2014.

Olena Shevchenko, head of Insight, told PinkNews how she spent two weeks on the phone with landlords prejudiced against displaced refugees and LGBT+ people. 

When Shevchenko explained to them they would be living in the apartment, they simply replied: “Perverts”.

Financial aid ran dry by 2016, leaving organisers to scramble for cash to survive. 

Insight opened the shelter that housed around nine refugees at a time – 15 max – each provided with three months of stay as well as legal and psychological support.

Clothing, medicine, public transport passes were all provided by the shelter, as well as guidance with applying for work.

Around 68 refugees stayed at the tiny hostel across five years, Shevchenko said. 

However, that support structure has come to an end. Financial aid from western donors ran dry in 2016.

“Shelter was never popular among donors,” Shevchenko said. “It’s hard to manage such a difficult project by your own [with] so little support from donors.”

Organisers scrambled to keep the shelter open by re-directing funds from Insight’s other projects. But that tactic proved unsustainable, leading to the shelter’s closure.

This comes at time where homophobes is becoming “stronger and more violent”, Shevchenko described. 

“Based on war we received a huge wave of nationalistic organizations, many of those are ultra-nationalistic and radical. Unfortunately many people in Ukraine mix these things with patriotism.”

‘These organisations hunting on LGBTQI people on so-called ‘safaries’ after public demonstrations, events and creating groups to hunt on activists. Police do nothing about it,” she alleged.

What’s next? 

Olga Olshanskaya, the shelter’s coordinator, confirmed to Kyiv Post that since the shelter’s closure was announced, it received seven applications from refugees desperate for a place to stay.

Alternatives are limited in Ukraine.

A shelter opened by HIV advocacy group Alliance Global only houses men who have sex with men and trans folk, both of which the group deems most at-risk from the disease.

The community centre is now the last remaining queer shelter in the country, which Alliance Global said is not enough.

Kharkiv, Ukraine Pride

Ukrainian police escort activists from the LGBT community during the Kharkiv Pride march.(SERGEY BOBOK/AFP/Getty)

“I think that shelters need to exist at least in every city with (around) a million people,” the groups coordinator Andrii said.

“In Kyiv, there is a need for a shelter for LGBTQ women. Unfortunately, our program doesn’t cover this category but the need is there.”

The shrinking support comes just months after the city hosted its LGBT+ Pride parade, where around 1,000 far-right protestor crashed the route and a thick cordon of police lined the streets.