Stereotypes about shelters and public attitudes towards them have been slowly changing for the better, according Janina Kulienė, head of a night shelter in Naujoji Vilnia that will see a two-million-euro expansion. However, as the establishment moves temporarily to another neighbourhood to enable the renovation, the local community there is protesting the relocation of "problematic social institutions".
Kulienė has worked in the night shelter since its opening and says that anyone can end up here – former pilots, actors, doctors, military personnel, musicians, teachers and even well-known people.
“We have a variety of people staying at the shelter for shorter or longer periods of time: we also accommodate older people [...] who do not have any relatives and have nowhere else to go,” she says.
“There are people who start their lives anew. The average age of residents is 40-50 years. [...] The mission of the shelter is to integrate them, [help them] be a part of the society rather than live in exclusion, to help people understand that life does not end here,” says Kulienė.
Such help has allowed many residents to get back on their feet, visit museums, theatres, and exhibitions. Each resident also receives personal psychological assistance, according to the press release issued by the Vilnius City authorities.
One resident of the shelter, Saulius, 42, came to Vilnius to look for a job with just one euro in his pocket. Having received information on where to turn to for accommodation at the Information Centre, Saulius has lived in the shelter for a month now.
“I gave up my addictions and I'm currently working at a workshop [...] I am not ashamed of the fact that I live here – I understand that none of the people who live in the shelter ended up here voluntarily,” says Saulius, whose dream is to visit his daughter in Ireland.
One of the current temporary residents of the shelter is Gžegož, who ended up in here because of his addiction. At first, the 55-year-old man was treated at a rehabilitation centre, and now he lives in a shelter on Kojelavičiaus street.
“If it wasn’t for this shelter, God knows were I would be now,” says Gžegož. “I now work towards paying off my debts, and have been put on a waiting list for social housing. I am trying to change my life entirely, because there was a time when I did not want to live, I had nothing and I had no hope. Living in the shelter, I no longer feel alone.”
During the summer, about 60 people live in the shelter, and 15 employees manage the establishment. The building that houses the shelter is currently in a very poor condition.
“We desperately need to renovate the building, because we accommodate even more people during the winter, many of whom are disabled,” says Kulienė.
However, according to the Vilnius City Administration's press release, the renovation works will only start in October.
Besides improving the existing facilities and adding more services, the shelter will offer social services with new integration programmes.
The aim is to integrate homeless people into the society more effectively, to reduce their exclusion, according to Vilnius City authorities. The existing shelter premises will also be expanded in the course of the reconstruction to include 60 temporary and 40 long-term accommodation units.
More than 2 million euros was allocated for the renovation, of which nearly 1.7 million euros come from the European Regional Development Fund.
Local community protests temporary relocation
The night shelter residents will be temporary housed in Naujininkai area in Vilnius until the renovation is finished. However, the temporary relocation met resistance from local residents.
Head of the Naujininkai Community, Artūras Melianas, tells LRT.lt that the public was not informed about the decision to house the night shelter in place of a liquidated children socialisation center.
According to him, the community will try to prevent the night shelter from opening in their neighbourhood.
“It’s a pitty that without looking at long-term and large initiatives by Naujininkai residents to improve the image of their neighbourhood, there’s again a proposal to set up problematic social institutions” in the area, says Melianas.
Vilnius authorities emphasise that the night shelter in Naujininkai will be only temporary.