Support for this project was provided by the Dutch Fund for In-depth Journalism, Postcode Lottery Fund and Free Press Unlimited.
Olya Zhuk can’t recall her first memory of the Oselya community for the homeless. She arrived at its modest main residence in Vynnyky, a suburb of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, with her mother when she was an infant. Growing up, Oselya’s rules were as second nature to Olya as bedtimes and curfews are for other kids. Keep your room clean, no discrimination of any kind, do not take things that do not belong to you—just to name a few.
“All of my memories of Vynnyky are warm. It’s a very cozy, nice, and beautiful little town,” Olya, now nineteen, said. A year ago, she moved to a subsidized dorm that Oselya operates closer to Lviv’s center. There, residents still must be drug- and alcohol-free and fulfill work requirements, but they can have their own rooms and romantic relationships. Olya is grateful for the opportunity. “I can be independent, I can have some responsibility of my own.”
Oselya means “home” in Ukrainian, and its residents refer to themselves as the Oselyata—the people of Oselya. It has helped to stabilize and nurture many people like Olya. Ukraine has long had a sizable homeless population, brought on in part by the alcoholism and poverty that proliferated following the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the government does operate short-term shelters, few groups like Oselya—a member organization of the Emmaus International movement—support the long-term needs of the homeless, and arguably none with as much thoroughness and commitment.
Robin Alysha Clemens, a Dutch photographer, discovered the organization in 2016 while traveling around Ukraine with the writer Lisa Weeda. Clemens was drawn to the way Oselya seemed to embody one of her main interests as an artist—how people forge an independent identity within a subculture—and returned several times. At Oselya, “individuals live their own lives, but they also have to form a group that is constantly changing,” she said. “It’s a family, but it’s also forced.”
Her photos showcase that tension, ranging from portraits of striking interiority, where the painful circumstances that brought people to Oselya seem evident on their faces, to images of harmonious, even joyful, cooperation. Oselya’s residents are required to work, usually at one of its two secondhand stores or its furniture-repair shop, but the organization has a way of infusing its efforts with heart. Some of Clemens’s photos, for example, capture a 2018 fashion show fundraiser where residents and volunteers modeled the secondhand merchandise.
After collaborating with Weeda on photo exhibitions and a street newspaper about Oselya in Ukraine and the Netherlands, Clemens assumed she was done documenting the organization’s residents and broader community of staff and volunteers. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion, however, she returned to capture its unexpected next chapter. She plans to develop her work documenting the community over the years into a book.
In Clemens’s more recent photos, taken in February 2023, a third player emerges alongside the individual and the collective: the Ukrainian nation. The war put Oselya’s capabilities in high demand. After the initial shock wore off, donations of clothes and goods surged, and Oselya was one of the few organizations that had experience processing them. Soon the community was sorting not just items to sell at its thrift stores, but donations for the army and the displaced.
Oselya’s day center, where visitors can receive a meal, a shower, and laundry services, saw its traffic almost triple as Lviv swelled with people fleeing the fighting. “We didn’t stop anything,” said Olya Biyanska, a longtime social worker at Oselya. Last winter, when Russia targeted Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure, producing lengthy blackouts, the community prepared the weekly meal it serves to about two hundred people on the streets of Lviv on hot plates and with the help of neighbors.
The main house, too, experienced changes, almost doubling its number of residents. The new residents are often men from the country’s most imperiled regions who don’t have much experience with the streets. They have had a harder time adjusting to Oselya’s rules, and conflicts over the use of Russian language—Ukrainian is the lingua franca in Lviv, unlike in the country’s south and east—have occurred despite Oselya’s antidiscrimination policy, which extends to language. Biyanska said the tensions have quelled, though, as Russian-speaking residents have demonstrated an effort to use Ukrainian.
Kostya is part of the post-invasion cohort of Oselya residents. He fled his hometown of Kharkiv shortly after the war started, finding a haven in a repurposed Lviv school. Last September, when it closed as a shelter so that it could reopen for students, he went to the streets. In his old life, he had a job selling sports equipment, and “money was just lying around.” With Kharkiv under bombardment and its economy crippled, it’s impossible for him to imagine returning anytime soon. Amid that uncertainty, he has found a home in Oselya.
Equanimity, however, can be difficult to maintain amid the stress of war. At least a dozen men affiliated with the community are now serving in the Ukrainian army. While Lviv is far from the front lines, the city is still subject to attacks and frequent air raid alerts; a missile strike in July severely damaged several buildings in central Lviv and killed ten. One of the main messages Oselya tries to communicate is that anyone can end up homeless. Ukrainians now have no shortage of reminders.