How The Big Issue’s Fabian changed the way Britain counts homeless deaths

The 'Belgian Waffle's' 2018 death became part of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism's Dying Homeless project which is chronicled in Maeve McClenaghan's new book No Fixed Abode. Maeve explains Fabian's vital role in ensuring that homeless deaths matter

There was a moment, sitting in Fabian’s funeral, when the true horror of my work hit me. 

Months earlier I had set out on a journalistic mission, I wanted to answer what I thought was a simple question: how many people had died while homeless in the UK. One after another I tried all the places I thought might hold that data. The police suggested I ask hospitals, they pointed me to the coroners office, then councils, then central government. No one had the figure because no one counted. 

That is where things could have ended. But I was so shocked that no one was keeping a record that I went to my editors at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. I work with a team that focuses on linking up journalists across the UK – together, I thought, maybe we could pull in our own data, come to our own answer. And so I put the call out to journalists across our network: please let me know if you hear of anyone passing away while experiencing homelessness.

I never met Fabian, but I wish I had. He, like so many others became more than a number, more than just a statistic in my database

That is how Fabian’s name appeared on my computer screen [in 2018]. The Big Issue’s reporter Liam Geraghty got in touch to tell me that Fabian, who had sold The Big Issue for years, had died aged just 48. What was more, his funeral was in a few days’ time.

At Fabian’s funeral I watched as his friends and family told warm, loving stories of the man who had been dubbed “the Belgian Waffle” because of his ability to spin a yarn. Later I spoke at length with his sister Angie, who still lived in Belgium. I interviewed his friends and supporters in Stony Stratford, one of the places he called home. I visited the allotment he worked on, smelt the flowers he had tended to. I asked the local council about his care, and poured over the coroner’s report into his death.

Fabian Bayet
Fabian-Bayet
Fabian's smile and personality was a big hit with his regulars. Credit: Victoria Holton

I never met Fabian, but I wish I had. He, like so many others became more than a number, more than just a statistic in my database. Slowly I came to know a little of his life, to understand the lasting impact he has had. Indeed, I was delighted to attend the unveiling of a portrait of Fabian, which residents of Stony Stratford erected in his honour. 

I also came to understand the many ways the system we assume is there to help people who fall on hard times failed Fabian and so many others. There are vital lessons to learn from Fabian’s death, ruled to be from a ruptured oesophagus as a result of cirrhosis of the liver, as there are from every person who died an early and unnecessary death while homelessness in the UK, one of the richest countries in
the world. 

As the nation grapples with the economic and social fallout of the pandemic and the lockdown, we need to learn those lessons now, before more people fall into homelessness, before more people die.

DID YOU KNOW…

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Fabian’s story features in Maeve McClenaghan’s book recounting her investigation, No Fixed Abode. Here we share a short extract from the chapter The Belgian Waffle

The years passed and Fabian found a kind of routine. Each week he’d drive or hitch a ride to Northampton to pick up copies of The Big Issue, which he’d bring back and sell in Stony Stratford, wooing customers with his charming chat.

Fabian was a storyteller, and he’d become quite the character in the town, where people began to call him the ‘Belgian Waffle’ because he’d always have a story for them. He’d tell tales so meandering, so whimsical, it became impossible to know where the truth really lay.

For years Fabian moved from one sleeping spot to another, sometimes sleeping in a car he’d been given, other times in the flat of his on-again-off-again partner Sandra.* He enjoyed the nomadic lifestyle; if he moved around enough, no one was able to tell him to quit the drink and the drugs.

And when life got too busy, he had a special place he could go, to escape it all for a while: the allotment. Days would pass with him sitting contentedly under a spindly apple tree, looking out at the thin, long stretch of vegetable garden before him. This was his haven, a quiet place he could come, just a 10-minute walk from the bustle of the town’s high street. Here, the noise of the town was a low hum in the distance, punctuated occasionally by the cluck of one of the chickens in a nearby plot.

The allotment was often alive with colour. Towards the bottom of the plot a sea of blue ceanothus flowers speckled the ground, their scent mixing with the waft of mint emanating from a herb patch. The small shed on the allotment was just large enough for him to wriggle inside and curl up on the floor. It did fine as a bedroom in the summer months.

Fabian Bayet Luke McDonnell
Fabian-Bayet-sketch-Stony-Stratford
Luke McDonnell's drawing of Fabian and his pet dog Whippet is now a permanent fixture of Stony Stratford High Street

Sometimes friends would drop by, including a woman in her early thirties: Estella. She’d met Fabian after they got chatting when he sold her The Big Issue. Now she considered him a friend. Fabian would guide her through the patches of tilled land until they reached his spot. He would proudly point out the raspberries and strawberries to her as they sauntered lazily up the slight camber to the bench under the apple tree.

Those summer days stretched long and languidly into evenings, caught up in the flow of Fabian’s florid stories. He’d tell Estella tales about the old man who had tended a plot here for over 60 years, or the French couple who were always looking down on him. “The politics – he always told me about the people of Stony,” Estella recalls of Fabian’s favourite topics. “He always told me all the stories. All the things that were going on.”

The only thing out of place in this pastoral scene was the half-drunk can of Special Brew at Fabian’s feet. He never really kept track of how much he drank, but there was always a steady supply of super-strong cider or spirits like vodka. (A doctor once told me the number one thing the government could do to tackle homelessness would be a restriction of these super-strong, super-cheap drinks.) Fabian would drink until he was warm. Drink until he could sleep.    

Maeve McClenaghan is a journalist with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. No Fixed Abode: Life and Death Among the UK’s Forgotten Homeless is out now (Pan Macmillan, £20)