A former volunteer of ours, Zoltan, will be running the Edinburgh marathon on May 27th for Rhythms of Life! An avid runner, Zoltan has run seven marathons and fourteen half-marathons so far. Zoltan has volunteered with us from 2010-2011. As a previous volunteer Zoltan choose to support our charity because he has seen the impact we make in the local community. From everyone here at Rhythms of Life, we wish Zoltan the best of luck and all the support on his big run!
To read more about his run and to support him and our charity please visit his JustGiving page here
Aija tells me that today is the best day of her week. Why? Because today, she attends our art class.
Come rain or come shine, Aija arrives at the Rhythms of Life headquarters every Wednesday to attend our art class. She tells me that the workshop is the one thing that takes her mind off her situation. Like all of our service users, Aija is homeless. When she wakes up, Aija doesn’t know where she will sleep that night.
An unassuming and kind-hearted character, when Aija comes in she tells our staff members that she doesn’t want a tea or coffee. But we serve her a milky coffee and a slice of cake, and it’s well received. Aija tells me about her childhood in Latvia. “I’m from Riga, a city of culture they say”. It’s there that her passion for art began. But Aija says it was difficult to grow up in the totalitarian state. “Everybody hated communism. We dreamed of living in the West.”
After leaving school at 18, Aija got an office job as a secretary. “It was a very good job, the best job that I could have as a woman.” But she didn’t stay for long. After the fall of communism, work was harder to come by but she found a job in security.
Aija’s life was transformed when she met an American man in Riga. They began a whirlwind romance, and Aija followed him back to the United States, where they lived together in New York. But they didn’t stay put for long, and Aija travelled the world with her American partner, living for a number of years in Australia. Eventually, the pair moved back to Riga, got married, had a son.
Sadly, the marriage broke down shortly after Aija gave birth. Aija lost custody of her son when her ex-husband moved back to the US, and she stayed in Riga. It was then that Aija struggled to pay her rent and fell into a debt crisis.
“I started to gamble everything I had. I could not find regular work, whenever I made money, I gambled it instantly and lost everything. It is a bad habit, I have ruined everything by gambling.
Because of her addiction, Aija ran out of people in her life that she could turn to for support. In desperation, she scratched together enough money to fly to London, where she hoped to turn over a new leaf.
But old habits die hard, and Aija is still homeless ten years later. She has recently left supported accommodation because she could not fulfil the debt she owed for missed payments.
Since January, Aija has been finding regular work as a cleaner, and dreams of returning to Riga. She has patched up relations with her mother, but she can’t help herself from gambling her earnings.
“The only time I don’t think about gambling is the art class.” She confides to me. “Most of the time, I am only thinking of how I can earn money, how I can gamble. But here, I only think about my art, and what Lyn [our art teacher] is teaching me.”
Having gone from eating our food to distributing it himself, Ron knows Rhythms of Life better than most people who pass through our doors.
Shortly after our charity was founded, Ron, who was sleeping rough at the time, came to our attention. Over several years, Ron forged a close relationship with the team at Rhythms of Life, and learnt I.T. and financial management skills from our classes as he rebuilt his life.
Ron now lives in a council flat in Hackney. As recently as last year, Ron was a regular volunteer who collected food from our partners and prepared it for distribution.
“My name is Stevie, I’m 59 years old, and people say I look like Fagin from Oliver Twist. I don’t know if you agree.
“What keeps me going is my dog, which I found in a terrible condition. I feel less lonely because of him. He is my only real friend.
“Yes, I am homeless. It’s really hard to live like a normal person. You get used to living in the street and sleeping on the ground. I used to live in different countries and places like France, Germany, and Sweden – I was fluent in French and German when I was younger.
“I never expected to live like this. I just want to settle down. I want a bed to sleep in, a shower to wash myself, my own room and some food.
“Rhythms of Life help feed me, but I’m still miserable. If someone can help me get out of this situation, I would be so grateful.”
“I first came across Rhythms of Life a year ago or so, I get meals here three times a week. Sometimes I get food from other charities too.
“I’ve been offered volunteering opportunities, but I prefer to look for paid work. I want to prove that I’m socially acceptable, and to improve my lot in society.
“It’s tough – I’m trying to find work as a driver, but I don’t get many hours at all. But, I won’t give up.
This January marked 84 years since George Orwell published “Down & Out on the Streets of London & Paris”. Former rough sleeper, and homelessness charity chief executive, Andrew Faris, explains the quotes which ring true today.
“The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit. Change places, and handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?”
When I fell homeless, I was stripped of the respect and the compassion that I took for granted before my life collapsed. Now that I have pulled myself off the streets and founded a homelessness charity, I am treated with the dignity that I missed during those years. It is no coincidence.
“The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and spiritually.”
The biggest problem that I faced when I slept rough was not hunger. The intense feelings of loneliness and helplessness haunted my everyday life, sapped my energy and drained my resolve. It is difficult to capture the pain of living on the street.
“Each day they expend innumerable foot-pounds of energy—enough to plough thousands of acres, build miles of road, put up dozens of houses—in mere, useless walking.”
Homelessness felt like a never ending journey. Charity services, such as food distribution and educational classes, were were available sporadically and spread across the city. The best places to sleep were not the best places to spend the day; I walked from Holburn to Embankment and back every day for three years. With no choice but to walk, rough sleepers clock up tens of thousands of yards a day and expend their scarce energy resources just to feed themselves and keep warm.
“There exists in our minds, a sort of ideal or typical tramp – a repulsive, rather dangerous creature, who would die rather than work or wash… I am only saying that they are ordinary human beings, and that if they are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of their way of life.”
Sadly, prejudice and stereotypes confound the public image of rough sleepers. Even our volunteers are struck by the humanity of the rough sleepers that they meet. Too often, we leap to conclusions about the people we see on the street because our perception of homelessness is based on a single story of addiction and idleness.
“It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty – It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for when one has consorted with them, and found that they are ordinary human beings, one cannot help being struck by the curious attitude that society takes towards them.
Our service users exceed our volunteers’ expectations all the time; they are compassionate, go out of their way to be gracious and only accept donations of hats, coats and sleeping bags when they are in need.
“A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor”
We have served food to the homeless for over eight years. I distribute meals personally several nights a week, and often encounter rough sleepers I have known since I lived on the street fifteen years ago. Are they happy to see me? Everybody who’s ever distributed food with me knows the answer: Of course not!
“Remember that the bad days are not forever, and the trouble which seems so terrible at last.”
On a positive note, many rough sleepers turn their lives around. There are many people who have escaped homelessness to live happy, successful lives.
Fortunately, there are now more services available to rough sleepers than ever before. Prevention hotlines stop thousands from falling homeless, and we are harnessing new technology, such as the StreetLink app which connects rough sleepers with referral services, in the fight to eradicate rough sleeping.
At Rhythms of Life, we remain optimistic about eradicating rough sleeping in our lifetimes.
As a former rough sleeper of five years, and chief executive of London homelessness charity, Rhythms of Life, for eight, the question I hear more than any others: What can I do to help rough sleepers?
So I’ve put together a list seven things you can do to help rough sleepers this winter:
Give warm clothes and sleeping bags
Make no mistake, cold weather can be life-threatening if you’re sleeping on the streets each night. So have a look through your wardrobes and lofts for any hats, gloves and coats that you can spare. But don’t just leave a boxful out on the street and assume rough sleepers will get to it donate to your nearest homelessness charity.
Give hot drinks and food
Every other day it seems I get asked: “Should I give rough sleepers money or not?”. The simple answer is there’s no way to know where the money will go after you’ve let it out your sight. But if you want that money to go towards food, then cut out the middle man and buy that person a bite to eat or a hot drink. Soup, tea and coffee are very popular on our food distributions runs at this time of year.
Most people offering front line services such as food and clothing distribution are volunteers. My charity is staffed entirely by volunteers, myself included. There are countless organizations recruiting helpers, so make some time and do your bit, if you can.
We may all be tightening our belts again, but any amount we can squeeze out of our weekly budgets and donate can make a real difference in the lives of rough sleepers. These days, most distributions are done by recycling surplus food so cash donations of £5, £10 or £20 can be used to keep small charities in business or support a rough sleeper to attend a GP visit or a job interview.
Over 60% of rough sleepers are new to the streets according to No Second Night Out. One of the best things anyone can do is refer a rough sleeper to an organization that can help. If you have any concerns about someone sleeping rough then you can contact StreetLink (or download the app!), in England or look up your local agency in other parts of the UK. We recommend that you talk to the person to get their consent, and see if they’re willing to provide their mobile phone number to help outreach coordinators contact them.
One of the toughest struggles as a rough sleeper is living with the sense of social isolation and loneliness. So respond to the person in front of you and have a quick chat. Ask them about their day, learn their name and just be prepared to listen and empathize. We especially recommend this if you pass the same rough sleeper during your daily routine. But don’t be too pushy, show the homeless the same respect you would show anyone else.
Make it regular
Whatever you do, don’t just do it once or once a year. Homeless people are sleeping rough every night and organisations such as mine providing help 365 days a year too. Whatever you do, do it again and make a habit out of it. There are no acts of kindness too small to make a difference.