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Vendor Profile: Former engineer overcomes prison & divorce

Wed, Feb 13, 2013

Nikolai Romanov sells his paper and advises other people who are homeless.

After losing his engineering job, Nikolai Romanov’s dependency on alcohol alienated his family and eventually he ended up in prison, wrongly accused of burglary. During his six-year incarceration, he contracted tuberculosis and became divorced. He explains how selling The Way Home–a Ukrainian street paper based in Odessa– has helped turn his life around.

When I was younger I graduated from the Odessa Polytechnical Institute and received my diploma as an engineer. I then worked in the ‘Stal’kanat’ factory in Odessa. During the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the business was closed and I became unemployed.

A few years went by where I did casual jobs and then I became friends with people who sold homemade alcohol. My life changed in some ways and I started to use alcohol regularly. Normally after work I went to a café with friends and we would share a bottle of vodka between the three of us and get drunk.

With each passing day we drank more and more. I would always arrive home in a very bad state, I constantly argued with my wife, sometimes we fought. This all happened in front of our children. Sergei and Oksana were afraid of me and didn’t speak to me.

One day some friends and I were sitting in a café and someone from another table injured our friend. We went outside to talk with them, and they started a fight. When the police arrived on the scene only myself and one other person were still there and they started to fight with us. They beat me badly and I could not escape. I was taken to the police office and all the blame for the fight was placed on my shoulders.

I was forced to sign a statement but I still wasn’t sober so didn’t read it properly. It turned out that as well as the fight, a burglary was being hung on me as well. My friends refused to help me. All of the money I had I spent on a lawyer, but he couldn’t help me. I was sent to prison for eight years.

After six years I was released for good behavior, but things weren’t well with me. I had contracted tuberculosis in prison and my wife had left me and thrown me out of our communal apartment. My parents died a long time ago. I asked for help from close relatives but nobody wanted anything to do with a former prisoner, ill with tuberculosis.

I ended up on the street. I lived in the basement of a multi-storeyed house with other people in the same situation.

Finding ‘The Way Home’

In order to get my documents back someone told me to contact the center of records and registration fund The Way Home. There I found out that there was the possibility to earn money legally selling the newspaper The Way Home on the streets of the city. During this three years, I received my passport and identification code.

I also found a new girlfriend and we moved in together. We live in the suburbs of Odessa – the area of Nerubayskoe. I take care of the chores; do the gardening and look after our vegetable patch. Three times a week I travel into the city and sell the street paper. I don’t drink alcohol anymore, receive treatment at a tuberculosis clinic and have the opportunity to see my children. They are already grown up and have forgiven me for my former sins.

My working day

I get up at the crack of dawn at 6 a.m. I go outside, feed our pets and leave for the city to the editor’s office where I collect the paper and go about my daily route.

Usually I sell beside the market ‘Privoz’ where there are always lots of people who buy from me. A few know me and always ask for the new edition of the paper.

I enjoy the work – I’m not just selling a newspaper but I’m also meeting homeless people and telling them whether they can receive help. There was a time when I needed this advice myself, therefore it’s good to know what living under the stars is really like. After that, when I have sold all of the papers, I get the bus back home.

The alternative ending

I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t asked for help at The Way Home. I probably would have drunk and then died in some basement somewhere.

Thanks to the editors of the street paper who believed in me and gave me work, I have managed to change my life.

When I stood at the crossroads – at the choice between life and existence – I chose life. I received help and support which I could not have survived without. Now everything is going well for me, and I myself am starting to help people who have also fallen into difficult situations.

– Translated from Russian into English by Amy Fox

Written by Nikoai Romanov,
The Way Home – Ukraine

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