Aija’s story

 

Lyn, our art teacher, helps Aija during one of our classes

Aija’s story

 

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.”

 

Read more: Our service users surprise Ryan on his 50th birthday!

Read more: The life stories behind some of our former service users

 

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Seven ways to help rough sleepers

 

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.

Volunteer

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.


Donate

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.

Referral services

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.

Chat!

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.

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