It’s an ongoing scandal that homeless people are not afforded the same dignity when they die as the rest of us. Their lives are often surrounded in mystery, and no one in officialdom even bothers to count these deaths.
Now a major, year-long study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has delved into the stories and found there have been hundreds – at least – of these barely noticed deaths in just a year.
The project, called Dying Homeless, was launched in October 2017. Reporters spent 12 months digging into the reasons why homeless people can just disappear and why their lives are valued so little.
They spoke to homeless charities, organisations and journalists (including those at The Big Issue) in a bid to track down every death on the streets, in temporary accommodation or in hospital.
Now, to mark World Homeless Day they have released their findings, which show that 449 homeless people died since last October. However, they know the true figure is likely to be much higher.
But it’s not just about the numbers – behind every death is a story of a person, frequently one who faced more challenges than most. The Bureau’s reporters travelled the country attending funerals and speaking to families and friends to get to the truth.
One of the people they focused on was Milton Keynes Big Issue vendor Fabian Bayet, who died in July.
Maeve McClenaghan is part of the Bureau. She explored the streets where Fabian lived and worked and met the people who knew him. This is what she found:
On the day of Fabian Bayet’s funeral the local town crier came out in full regalia to herald the hearse as it passed.
The July sun beat down as mourners began to file into the crematorium, many dressed not in black but bright pinks, blues and tie-dyed colours. Bob Marley songs played through the speakers. Fabian’s best friend Mark stood at the front of the room and told the crowd,
“I’ve lost a brother.”
Fabian was just 48 when he died earlier this year. Originally from Belgium, he sold The Big Issue in Stony Stratford, outside Milton Keynes, accompanied always by his dog, Pippet the whippet.
He quickly endeared himself to many in the town and earned himself the nickname “the Belgian Waffle” for his ability to tell a good story. Sally Luff met him about 13 years ago and always looked forward to seeing him at his vendor spot.
“Not many lunchtimes went by without chatting to Fabian,” she remembered fondly. “He was a great storyteller though you never knew what was real and what was fabricated. But it was all very entertaining, funny and often poignant,” she added.
Fabian is one of hundreds of people who died while homeless in the UK in the last year. The figure is likely to be a significant underestimate.
In the Bureau’s investigation, they heard stories of a grandmother who made potted plant gardens in shop doorways, who was found dead in a car park. A 51-year-old man who took his own life the day before his temporary accommodation ran out. A man who was tipped into a bin lorry while he slept.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
Some were found in shop doorways in the height of summer, others in tents hidden in winter woodland. Some were sent, terminally ill, to dingy hostels, while others died in temporary accommodation or hospital beds. Some lay dead for hours, weeks or months before anyone found them. Three men’s bodies were so badly decomposed by the time they were discovered that forensic testing was needed to identify them.
They died from violence, drug overdoses, illnesses, suicide and murder, among other reasons. One man’s body showed signs of prolonged starvation.
The cause of Fabian’s death still hasn’t been officially recorded, and is still being investigated by the coroner’s office.
Charities and experts responded with shock at the Bureau’s findings. Howard Sinclair, St Mungo’s chief executive, said: “These figures are nothing short of a national scandal. These deaths are premature and entirely preventable.”
Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said: “Not only will 449 families or significant others have to cope with their loss, they will have to face the injustice that their loved one was forced to live the last days of their life without the dignity of a decent roof over their head, and a basic safety net that might have prevented their death. No one deserves this.”
I'm logging names of those that have died homeless across the UK, but we have barely any info on anyone in #Wales… Can you help? Pls take 1 minute to tell us about anyone you know: https://t.co/gz4q9nA8nx & https://t.co/fBtXkGWicz pic.twitter.com/Tk7jLupPyg
— Maeve McClenaghan (@MaeveMCC) September 27, 2018
It was clear from the throngs of mourners that filled the crematorium that Fabian was much loved. He had been a sailor in the Belgian navy but had left, troubled by what he had seen during his service there. He moved to the UK and enjoyed tending to plants at his local allotment.
Nicky Parsons works at the Hope Centre in Northampton, where Fabian first signed up to sell The Big Issue in 2006. He was living in his car then.
“He told me he was a circus performer and he showed me some tricks and juggling.
“He was funny, cheeky, loud and lived life to the full. Fabian was a character and will always be remembered,” she said.
But he had also struggled with drink and drugs. “I offered him the help but his addictions often overpowered,” said Estella Ramos, another of Fabian’s friends who also runs a support program from those battling addiction. “He was set in his ways and that was just Fabian.”
Now Fabian’s friends and loved ones are working to erect a memorial in the place he once sold the Big Issue. There are also plans to put up a canvas in the town’s new winter homeless shelter. “Fabian has brought us together and it fills my heart with joy. He was an amazing guy and so his legacy will live on,” said Estella.
To let the Bureau of Investigative Journalism know about someone who has died while sleeping rough, or is considered statutory homeless but in temporary accommodation, fill out the simple form at bit.ly/dyinghomeless.