Three Life Lessons I’ve Learned Volunteering for a Homeless Charity
By Sepy Akbarian
Since 2008 the charity Rhythms of Life has served over 1.2 million free meals to London’s homeless. But what I didn’t know when I began volunteering alongside founder, Andrew Faris, is that he, too, was once a rough sleeper. I’ve learned a lot since supporting his work…
I began volunteering for Rhythms of Life in 2021. I wanted to engage with my community and for what I did in my life to align more with my values, namely helping those in need. The charity receives regular food donations from renowned brands such as Marks and Spencer, and Coco di Mama. It aims to eliminate homelessness, as well as to enrich lives through educational courses. In essence, it was set up to provide the tools its founder, Andrew, lacked when he was on the streets: daily nutritious meals, lessons in life skills, help getting work, and finding somewhere to live.
As a volunteer, I help unload the batches of food we receive, including bread, yoghurt, sandwiches and chocolate bars. In groups of around seven, several of us cook up a hot meal, while others organise food into crates. We then drive together in a van to Trafalgar Square where almost a hundred homeless people are waiting in a queue. This ritual happens four days a week. The charity is open 365 days a year.
Here are the three life lessons I’ve learned through my volunteering.
Our past doesn’t dictate our future
The charity’s founder, Andrew Faris, ran a lucrative estate management firm before a hit to the financial climate led to bankruptcy. For the next six years he was confined to the streets. His story is not rare. I soon discovered that a sizeable proportion of the local homeless community previously held sought-after jobs, including in aircraft engineering and teaching, but were now homeless due to no-fault evictions – a leading cause of homelessness.
Before this, in my ignorance, I believed most people on the streets came from broken families and poor backgrounds. Escaping abusive relationships and leaving prison and the army are also reasons people find themselves without a home.
Andrew, in the midst of his homelessness, landed a role selling The Big Issue. He managed to save money to buy a camera and became a photographer, which became his career. He pledged to not turn his back on the community that he once belonged to and has since dedicated his life to the charity.
The less you have, the more you give
In the week leading up to Christmas Day 2021, a middle-aged lady who regularly uses Rhythm’s services entered our office and presented us with a red envelope. “Don’t open it yet,” she said mysteriously, then disappeared. When we opened the card, we were awed to find a £50 note inside. Overcome with joy, I was reminded of the beauty in humanity’s generosity and the words of Saint Mother Theresa: “The less we have, the more we give. Seems absurd, but it’s the logic of love.”
Kind conversations give comfort
My journey at Rhythms of Life has opened my eyes to the extent to which the homeless community feel alienated. After queuing, at times for over an hour, they’re given – in conveyor-belt fashion – a hot sandwich and a drink, then dismissed. Many have expressed to me that they feel seen but not heard. Homeless people want to have intelligent conversations. They want to be humanised. We can do this by asking open questions and by talking like we’d talk to our friends and family.
The experiences of the homeless serve as a reminder that even if we have no monetary change to offer, we can create change by stopping for a brief conversation with our fellow humans. “If somebody spoke to me when I was homeless, I was then more open to suggestions about getting off the streets,” Andrew has said.
I would recommend to anybody thinking about volunteering to jump in! There’s a lot of flexibility around when you give your time. And not only do you get to help change lives, but you may also meet people who’ll become your friends for life.
Sepy Akbarian took City’s Introduction to Copywriting course taught by Maggie Richards. Sepy is an optometrist with a passion for words; she is currently writing a poetry book.
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