LVIV, Ukraine — Olia Kareva is 46. She spent five years in jail for the crime she has not committed.
Kareva worked as the accountant at an enterprise in Lviv, and the court found her co-responsible for the financial fraud of the director. When she was “at those places” — talking to Catholic News Service, Kareva did not use the word “prison” — she lost her apartment. Afterward, she could not find a job due to her criminal record and health problems, and she found herself on the verge of homelessness.
Kareva found a home in Walnut House, a center for women in crisis in Lviv. “Crisis” is a euphemism that the center’s founder, Yuriy Lopatynsky, uses to describe the situation of utter despair that brings people to the street. Childhood in orphanages, dysfunctional families, domestic violence, drugs and alcohol, property swindles — every woman has her own painful story.
Since 2010, when the center opened, more than 80 women have been through its program, although the facility could house up to only 12 women simultaneously. It was the only program in the city with almost 830,000 inhabitants with close to 3,000 homeless people, 30 percent of whom are women.
“Women normally do everything to stay at home, even if they suffer the violence. But there are situations when a woman has to leave and doesn’t have a place to go,” said Lopatynsky. Observers say city authorities tend not to notice the issue or try solving it with some weak emergency methods.
“We, who have problems, are not welcomed in the city. Nobody wants to notice us,” said Kareva.
Kareva is a success story. She was able to get back to her profession and works as an accountant at Walnut House Bakery.
“I wanted to show my gratitude. I did not have money, but I could pay with my work. And I’m not feeling useless anymore,” Kareva told Catholic News Service.
Lopatynsky decided to open the bakery to support the house and program financially and to offer jobs for women who lived in the center. In addition, cookies and the baking process are strong symbols of warmth and comfort that can give women a sense of a home.
“At first we didn’t associate directly the bakery name and the house for women. But later somebody noticed a powerful symbolism — a house protects women as a shell protects the walnut,” Lopatynsky said.
Lopatynsky studied in the seminary and this year completed MBA program at the Lviv Business School of the Ukrainian Catholic University. He said he tries to apply effective business models to solve social issues.
The bakery produces 1.5 tons of pastry monthly, sells products to different restaurant chains, and provides conference catering. Recently, it opened a small canteen.
Another woman who lived in the center, identified only as Lesia, washes dishes in the bakery. She is a widow with two children who do not live with her. She lost her home after the deaths of her husband and mother and problems with alcohol. She avoids talking about this, but she gladly shares how the integration program changed her.
“They helped me to understand that life is going on and I need to struggle. And I overcame it,” she said with a smile.
Khrystyna Bahriy, a social worker at the women’s center, said with every woman who came to the center, staffers met with them to plan reintegration, and it was the job of each woman to make this plan work.
Lopatynsky said their idea was not to build the community but to offer opportunities for women to become more independent.
“Homelessness is characterized with a loss of all social relations, needs and skills. We tried to motivate women to be more independent, to strive for more. We tried to help them to leave our house as soon as possible. Women need to have their own home, be the owners of their lives.”
In some cases, such as with elderly women who cannot live on their own, Walnut House workers engaged with partners to find solutions. They say the state system is weak and inefficient, so they try to build the alternative system. Walnut House charitable fund staffers hope to establish a geriatric center and a house for women with children.
“We need to develop business projects to support our social activities,” Halyna Onyshko, director of the charitable fund, told CNS.
In October, Walnut House faced a serious challenge to its existence. For six years, the center operated in a rented house, and the owners decided to sell it. Although for two years city authorities had promised to donate municipal facilities, the women lost their home.
“This crisis became the impetus for many courageous steps women took. They found temporary housing. And we help them with a rent payment,” said Lopatynsky.
He and his team did everything possible to get a new house. For two months, the organization dialogued intensively with members of the city council, media and civic activists to explain how important is the center and its activity for the city. Their campaign again drew attention to the problem of homeless people.
On Dec. 1, the Lviv City Council voted to lease a municipal building for a new home for women. Now, Walnut House is preparing to raise funds to renovate the building and hopes to relaunch the center program next year.