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Eastern Europeans being helped home after living rough

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Nadezda Ginevic says she only survived in London because she did not sleep at night

Of the thousands of people sleeping rough on London's streets it is estimated more than a quarter are now from Central and Eastern Europe.

But hundreds are going back home with a free ticket, paid for by the Government, and assistance from "reconnection teams."

BBC London's Gareth Furby has been following some of London's homeless back to Lithuania.

Sitting in the departure lounge at Gatwick airport she was hard to miss.

Nadezda Ginevic had skin on her face that appeared to have been stretched and worn by six months of hellish living on the streets around Waterloo station.

Now, with a free air ticket paid for by the Government she was getting out while she was still alive.

She started to weep as she told me how her dream of riches had nearly killed her.

In London I met the wrong friends...and most of them died on the streets. I drank whisky, cider, vodka and alcoholic hand wash. I could have died like them but I stopped in time.
Antanas Bodgonas

"In my opinion I only survived in London because I didn't sleep at night," she said. "I nearly lost my eyesight which I think was because of the stress."

Nadezda, 52, said she came to the UK 18 months ago after spending 1,500 Euros on a relocation scheme for Lithuanians.

It was sold as a route to a good job and a new start.

Instead, she said, she ended up picking onions on a farm for the minimum wage and, when she left to come to London, her luggage was stolen along with her passport.

After six months of hunger and confusion she said she stole a cooked chicken from a London department store to get arrested, and was relieved when she ended up in Holloway Prison.

"I didn't have money or anyone to talk to. I would probably have died on the street but thankfully the police found me.

"Prison was absolutely perfect," she continued. "It was very warm and there was a lot of food."

And this - at last - was her route home. Prison staff contacted the homelessness charity Thames Reach, which runs a new "reconnection scheme" paid for by the Government.

She was given a ticket home and her nightmare on the streets of London ended.

Nadezda Ginevic
Nadezda Ginevic at the airport waiting to fly back to her homeland

Nadezda Ginevic is the 675th Central or Eastern European to take this route since the scheme started up in the capital almost two years ago.

Not so long ago, an idea like this might have been condemned by some as "voluntary repatriation."

Now, the charity says it is saving the UK money, as ambulance call outs and hospital admissions linked to homelessness fall.

And, of course, it is also giving some of the capital's most desperate rough sleepers an escape route.

Drinking problem

In a Lithuanian hospital, I caught up with Vladimiras Govorovas, 57.

He came to London five years ago, moving into in a squat, and finally a hostel in Waltham Forest.

But, in July he was admitted to Whipps Cross Hospital and found to be seriously ill with liver disease linked to alcohol.

After talking to the reconnection team he took the free flight home.

His Lithuanian doctor looked on sternly as we discussed the drinking habits that were killing him.

''In London I drank cider but I was drunk very few times," he said "I saw people drinking alcoholic hand wash."

According to the charity, however, Vladimir had been drinking up to six bottles of high strength cider every day.

"He didn't really have the greatest life in London," said Megan Stewart, from the Thames Reach Reconnection Service.

"He was beaten up by a group of kids in the squat when they wanted money for protection. He ended up in hospital with four head wounds.

"I have no doubt in my mind that we would have found Vladimiras in the streets this winter…dead."

Amazingly, Vladmiras tells me he still hopes to return to London, because the transport and the hostel accommodation was free, and people gave him money.

Back home

He even showed me the Freedom Pass that he still keeps in his bag.

"It's no problem for me to earn money in London, it's a small amount of money but it's enough for the day. It's a shame on me but I used to beg but I'd never ask, people just gave.

"In England homeless people on the street have mattresses, blanket and pillows - in London it's no problem.

"Here (in Lithuania) it's very difficult to find things on the street."

But later he admitted he was glad to be back home.

Vladimiras in hospital in Lithuania
Vladimiras is being treated in hospital in Lithuania for liver disease

"Here in Lithuania I'm getting treatment and my mum's here and here is my country. I'm a citizen of this country."

Antanas Bodgonas, 55, a divorced father of one, came to London six years ago to work as a builder but ended up living rough around Victoria.

Now, he's trying to start again from his hostel near Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, after taking the ticket home.

In the bunk room he shares with three others he tells me he's given up drinking and is looking for work.

"Thank you, God. Everything is fine," he says. "I'm still alive.

"In London I met the wrong friends...and most of them died on the streets. I drank whisky, cider, vodka and alcoholic hand wash. I could have died like them but I stopped in time."

'Really distressed'

And Nadezda Ginevic is now settling in at the same Lithuanian hostel as she tries to rebuild her life, but it may not be easy task.

In tears on the flight home, she'd told me how she used her flat as security to raise the money to come to the UK, but as she hadn't stuck to the debt repayment schedule the flat may have been repossessed.

"I am really distressed," she said. "I'm going to my home country but I'm not going home. I haven't got a home in Lithuania anymore. I don't know what's happened to my flat, I don't know what's happened to my children. I lost all contact with them and I don't know what I'll see in Lithuania."

In her bunk room she wept once more. Perhaps it was the realisation that her 18 months in the UK had brought her only ruin.

"I'm here but my main task is to find my children, to find out where they are, what's happened to them, have they survived, are they still in Lithuania- this is my main task."

There was a final hug for Megan from the reconnection team and then we left.

Vladimiras' Freedom Pass which he proudly still carries
Vladimiras' Freedom Pass which he still proudly carries

The charity says the overall bill - including all costs, tickets, and where necessary, an escorted placement at a suitable new address in a home country - comes to just over £800 for every person accompanied home.

The budget for the coming year be will be £200,000.

But the charity estimates that more than a quarter of a million pounds in savings will be made by cutting the number of emergency call outs and hospital admissions.

Mike Nicholas, from Thames Reach, said: "This is a scheme that is saving lives. Otherwise we'd be seeing deaths on the streets of the capital.

"We are helping people reconnect with their families and also the services that offer them support back in their homelands.

"We are also helping save the British taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds by freeing up vital emergency services such as the ambulance, police and health services."




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Country profile: Lithuania
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