Beneath the Sky
“Prosot Neva” (Beneath the Sky) is sold by the homeless on the streets of Lviv, the largest city in Western Ukraine. It is backed by a social initiative whose mission is to provide vendors with income while changing public opinion about the homeless. With contributions from well-known Ukrainian authors, is a respected cultural magazine with a following of loyal readers. Read More
Editor-in-Chief Marjana Sokha has a degree in social work. Even at university, she was passionate about the issue of homelessness which she explored in a number of papers and her master's thesis. When the Oselja organisation began working with Lviv's homeless in 2007, Sokha volunteered to help out. Back then the young team was constantly confronted with the public's dislike of and prejudice against the homeless in their city. They wanted to find an effective medium for spreading the organisation's ideas and begin changing public opinion about the homeless.
Marjana Sokha remembers, “there were winters in which many died on the streets. But it was impossible to find a place to set up a shelter because residents protested and resisted. They feared the homeless, and worried that they would steal from them and spread disease. We explained that if Lviv had at least one place people could go and get medical attention, it would actually improve the situation. The homeless live in the city either way, and they use public transport.”
"I was amazed to discover that homeless people have a positive attitude towards others”
While the battle to set up a shelter continued, Sokha attended a conference in Poland on street publications. Since the 1980s, street newspapers and magazines have been founded in many countries to help change public opinion on homelessness and provide the homeless with employment. Sokha returned confident that this was exactly what Lviv needed.
Working with Oselja and on “Beneath the Sky” has really changed her life, Sokha says: “I was amazed to learn – and am still amazed today – that the homeless have a positive attitude towards others. It is easy to image that they are consumed with their own terrible situation and not at all interested in what is happening in the city and the country. But they are interested. They are just like everyone else in our society and share the same interests and concerns. People who live on the streets have a much more positive attitude towards people who live in homes than the other way round.”
A pretty good magazine with a mission and enjoying success
Grygorij Sementschuk is the creative mind behind the magazine's artistic content. Social workers created the first issue of “Beneath the Sky”, while the second was mostly the work of artists. Sementschuk has worked in the city's cultural scene for many years and knew nothing about the street paper format until he met Marjana.
Since 2008 he has co-published the magazine, solicited contributions, and written a column entitled “After Dark”. Semetschuk tells every homeless person he sees on the street about Oselja and how it can help them begin a new life.
“At a reading, Marjana came up to me and told me about the magazine. Then she asked if I wanted to get on board. I really liked the idea and the mission,” Semetschuk recalls. “I have always been interested in the stories of those who live at the fringes of society.”
The first piece he wrote for the magazine was about a homeless man in very poor health. He has no idea how the story ended, though he fears the worst.
“I have always had a normal relationship to the homeless. I remember walking with my grandfather, a police captain, along the street and watching as he greeted a homeless man. When I asked, “Grandpa, why did you say hello to him?”, he told me they had been classmates. At that moment I realised that homelessness could happen to anyone.”
Since Semetschuk joined Oselja he has witnessed a lot of great stories. People who had reached rock bottom and now have a family and a home. He feels it all depends on how determined someone is to make a change. The author mentions one young man who ran away from his dysfunctional family to live on the streets. Then he moved into Oselja and changed his life for the better. He is now a student at a respected university and has a good job. If you met him in the city, you would never imagine he had ever been homeless.
“I believe this magazine spreads the positive message that people can change their lives, work to get off the streets and live a normal life. And we have created a pretty good cultural magazine that has a mission and is enjoying success – awakening understanding from the public. I would not be working here if we just did advertising or wrote about politics,” Sementschuk explains.
No sign of artistic life
The BOMZH: Bez Oznak Mysteckoho Zhyttja or No Sign of Artistic Life photo project has become the magazine's calling card. Grygorij Semetschuk devised this alternative interpretation of “BOMZH”, an acronym for “without a fixed abode” and a widespread term used for the homeless. It features photos of Taras Prochasko, Yuri and Sofia Andrukhovych, Tanja Maljartschuk, Yuri Izdryk, Andrij Bondar and his daughter, and other famous authors as homeless people.
Marjana Sokha is confident, “politicians and pop stars would have refused if we had asked them to sit for photos as homeless people. The magazine found support from people who have more feeling and empathy for social problems than most people. They were not afraid to cross over the social lines.”
Rostyslav Spuk, a photographer from Ivano-Frankivsk and also a regular contributor to the magazine, took the pictures for the project. It all began with a cover photo – author Taras Prochasko as a homeless person. There have been seven additional photo shootings since.
Rostyslav Spuk talks about the project: “The subjects of these visual stories show that the social lift runs both horizontally and vertically. Any one of us can suddenly find ourselves in someone else's shoes. All the main subjects threw themselves into the project whole-heartedly, they were not concerned with how they looked and trusted us completely. This created a sense of community in which every feeling of superiority simply fell away. Not one single person who participated in the project approached the homeless with a sense of disgust. It is very hard to be deceptive in a photograph. Like a sculpture reveals the essence of the stone, a photo reveals the essence of a moment in time. You can immediately tell who is laughing sincerely and who is simply faking it.”
Rostyslav Spuk is convinced that thoughtfulness, solidarity and assistance are the only way to help the homeless. He would like to establish a yearly bonus fund for the homeless in Ivano-Frankivsk to be awarded to the most interesting person from the streets. The focus, he feels, should be on the person alone and not on some form of self-improvement.
The magazine helps and has helped a lot of people. It has often played an important role in the lives of those who live on the streets. Volodymyr Hilenko is one of its most shining success stories. Since joining the project, he has undergone a complete transformation and is so dedicated to his work it is impossible to imagine he used to be homeless and unemployed. He has been selling the magazine for seven years on Lviv Square and many residents have come to see him as the face of the magazine.
Marjana Sokha says, “Mr Hilenko is our most successful vendor and has been selling the magazine in the square since 2009. He has found his niche. He enjoys working with people, is very friendly and enjoys a good chat, so the work is perfect for him. Other vendors have used selling the magazine as a stopgap measure to help get them out of a crisis. But it has become Mr Hilenko's life's work and what he enjoys most.”
The original article is part of the Zeitgeist project, a co-production of Goethe-Institut Ukraine and the magazine Platforma.