Born in a prison, now Rudi finds homes for people living rough
Born in a prison, now Rudi finds homes for people living rough
11 January 2012
By 5.30pm the Streetlytes drop-in centre in Portobello Road is already packed. More than 50 homeless people have come in from the cold and are bent over their dinner of steaming meat and potatoes like an image out of Dickens.
Suddenly a man with tattoos on both arms grabs my hand. "Name's Joe," he said. "I'm an old bank robber, spent 17 years inside, now I'm in recovery and a volunteer for Streetlytes. See that guy," he points, "an old war hero.
You wouldn't believe who winds up homeless. Gives my life meaning, helping out. An amazing high, better than any robbery ever gave me." Helping Joe is Owen Cook, another volunteer plucked from the streets.
"Two years ago I lost my job and my marriage and came to London to start again, but I ended up alcoholic and sleeping outside House of Fraser in Victoria," he said.
"One night I looked up and there was this tall man called Rudi standing over me. He invited me to his drop-in centre and offered to get me a home. I thought he was mad, but every night he came back. What was different about Rudi was that he really cared. He couldn't do enough for me. He got me off the street, found me a home, and a training course to apply for. Rudi saved my life. Not just me - lots of people."
Tall, bespectacled Rudi Richardson, 56, founder of Streetlytes, is an unlikely hero. Born in a women's prison, he spent 33 years drifting in and out of addiction, prison and life on the streets. Then four years ago Mr Richardson pulled himself back from the brink. He cleaned up and formed Streetlytes to "give back", using his personal narrative to inspire other down and outs to do the same. "Our mission," he said, "is to help the people who stand in the shoes I stood in - the addicts, the homeless, the broken."
The Dispossessed Fund has made a £17,250 grant to support Streetlytes. It will be used to fund its winter help project, providing hot meals at its four drop-in centres in London - in Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea- as well as packs of thermal underwear, sleeping bags, gloves, jackets and hygiene kits to 500 homeless people.
THE grant is one of 163, amounting to £1.25 million, announced today to support groups tackling poverty across the capital. More than 70 per cent of the money comes out of the £1 million given to our Fund by the Government last year, and the balance comes from the Big Lottery Fund windfall as part of its People Powered Change initiative.
The Dispossessed Fund has raised £7.2 million since it began in July 2010, of which almost £3 million has been given to charitable projects across London. Many of these projects are run by passionate individuals, like Mr Richardson, who are determined to give back to their communities.
Mr Richardson says he called his group Streetlytes because when he was sleeping rough in a cardboard box in the West End in 2004, he found solace in the street lights. "Every night, without fail, they would come on, and they were like a beacon of hope for me, a sense of someone or something being there that never fails."
Mr Richardson's remarkable life story, made into a German television documentary last year, begins in Aichach women's prison in Bavaria. "My mother was German and half-Jewish, my father a black American GI, and I was born behind bars after my mother was incarcerated for prostitution. I was sent to a foster home and three years later I was adopted by a black American couple stationed in Germany."
Mr Richardson's adopted father was a master-sergeant in the Army and the family soon found themselves living back in California, but life was hard.
"My adopted mother was depressed and addicted to Valium and I'd come home from school and see her passed out on the floor. After a while my dad left because he couldn't take it and, at 13, I had to become the parent to my mother."
At 17, he ran away from home. It was the beginning of a descent into addiction - first heroin, later crack cocaine - and an itinerant life that would see him drift in and out of prison for robbery and theft. "My addiction took over," he said. "I lived for the next fix. For a while I'd sort myself and get a job - I was a legal secretary - but then I'd hit the self-destruct button again."
Mr Richardson was deported from the US to Germany at 49 and came to London, arriving on a bus from Berlin at Victoria. "I remember stepping into the biting February wind and walking down the street sobbing. I had nothing, not even a proper jacket. I tried to find a homeless shelter, but a key worker at St Martin's told me that I needed to go back to Germany and clean myself up. I was sleeping on the streets for four months and when I got bust stealing a sandwich on Oxford Street, I begged to be sent to prison because at least I'd be warm and fed."
He spent three weeks on remand at Brixton Prison, then a month at the Marylebone Shelter before seeking help from St Mungo's.
Mr Richardson enrolled on a 12-step Narcotics Anonymous programme and slowly, with immense willpower and lots of therapy, began to turn his life around. He has been five years clean and sober, he said, and has married a woman he met on the course and moved into a rented flat in Shepherd's Bush. Streetlytes, founded in 2007, is different from other homelessness charities, he said.
"What sets us apart is that most of the 20 core volunteers who run Streetlytes have been homeless addicts themselves. Unlike other agencies where key workers won't talk about themselves, our unique selling point is that we do. What's more, we are small, targeted and efficient.
"The local Sainsbury's generously provide us with free food, the Salvation Army with a free venue, and we feed over 650 homeless people every month. We've moved 46 people off the streets into independent accommodation, and we've provided a dozen drug awareness workshops to schools and the community, where we talk about our own experiences.
"The essence of Streetlytes is that we reach out to other homeless people and say 'we've been there, we can help, you CAN make it'. They feel more comfortable opening up to you when you've been to prison, hit a pipe, lived in the swamp. Thanks to the Dispossessed Fund, we can deliver comfort and pathway programmes to 500 homeless people this winter. It has been amazing to see some of our service users, like Owen Cook, now housed, going to college and helping out at Streetlytes.
"That is my mission. It is only just the beginning."
What does it do?
Streetlytes provides hot meals, warm clothing and housing advice to homeless people.
Amount awarded: £17,250
Where: Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea.
How will the cash be used?
To fund its winter help project - to provide 500 homeless people with "warm winter" packs of clothes, sleeping bags and hygiene kits, as well as hot food and drinks at four drop-in centres across central London.