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.”