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Housing

‘At least’ 116 people who died while homeless in London this year remembered in touching service

The number could be three times higher according to organisers at Trafalgar Square’s St Martin-in-the-Fields church

For many people experiencing homelessness, death can be without the dignity, acknowledgement and remembrance afforded to the rest of society.

That’s why every year mourners convene at a packed St Martin-in-the-Fields church in London’s Trafalgar Square to pay tribute to those who lost their lives while homeless in the English capital.

The names of 116 people who died in London were read out in the poignant church service on Thursday with tributes paid to celebrate the lives of the poets, dog-lovers and friends behind the numbers.

“It would be really easy, for people who are homeless, for their deaths to go unnoticed, be ignored, forgotten,” Jess Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness (MOH) and one of the ceremony’s organisers, told The Big Issue.

The service aims to “remember people with love and dignity for the beautiful and complicated humans that we all are, rather than some of the other ways homeless people are thought about,” Turtle said.

Fellow MOH co-founder Matt Turtle added: “This is a day for remembering, and for people coming together. There’s really the two sides of that in the work that we see. There’s the deep anger that people feel but also the need to come together in grief. That side is really present today.”

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The ceremony, which has been running for over a decade, offers dignity to those who might otherwise be disregarded, says Mark Brennan of Housing Justice, who also helps to organise the memorial.

“If you can believe it, for something so tragic, it’s something to look forward to. It’s celebrating these people’s lives. No way in the world would they be celebrated otherwise. On the contrary – they are completely trashed,” he said.

Although 116 names were read out in the church, Brennan believes the true number of names could be “at least” three times higher.

Those in the church heard the story of Ricky, who in his past played competitive football at a high level. Speaker Ed Addison imagined him having a past life as a “tricky winger” – but by the time the two met Ricky was a “gentle soul” devoted to his dog, Cleo. Cleo, said Addison, always ate first.

Just as Ricky had secured his own flat and was about to move in, he became terminally ill. “He never did get to make that next step in his journey,” Addison told the church.

Along with the readings of names and tributes, the church also heard music from the Choir with No Name, a group made up of people who have experienced homelessness.

After a rendition of Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars, the church broke out in applause.

Michelle, who has lived in London for 23 years and has been homeless, says the choir helped her through some particularly difficult times.

“I have a daughter and I’ve been through a lot of challenging times. Three years ago I went through a really dark period,” she told the Big Issue.

“To get back out into society and to touch base with my creativity, I found this choir. Literally, they saved my life. I had a lot of social anxiety, a lot of issues to deal with. Being with this lot and the family, the support, the creativity, it’s such a good cause.”

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There has been a shift in how homeless deaths have been treated and counted in recent years. As recently as five years ago there was no way of counting how many people died while homeless in the UK.

That changed in 2018 when the Bureau of Investigative Journalism launched the Dying Homeless project – a grassroots, crowdsourced count to keep track of homeless deaths around the UK.

The project, which included input from The Big Issue and told the story of late Big Issue vendors Fabian Bayet and Neculai Popa, is still ongoing with the Museum of Homelessness (MOH) now in charge.

Their most recent count in February 2021 found 976 people died without a stable home across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2020. Following the count, MOH paid tribute to the lives lost by laying 976 candles in Trafalgar Square.

Official counts of homeless deaths have also started in recent years. The Office for National Statistics developed their own method of counting homeless deaths around the same time as TBIJ’s project kicked off. The most recent count for England and Wales was released in December 2020 and found 778 people died without a secure home in England and Wales in 2019.

Meanwhile, the National Records of Scotland has also started counting homeless deaths. In February 2021 the NRS reported that an estimated 216 people died while sleeping in temporary accommodation or rough on Scotland’s streets in 2019.

But for all the numbers, many people who die while homelessness can often be unnamed.

Today’s annual ceremony provides closure for all those who knew the people behind the names – including those working in the homeless sector.

Isabella Harriss, who works with Housing Justice in Nottingham, says the opportunity to grieve is often unavailable to those on the frontline. She recalls losing two people she was working with in the space of two weeks.

“I didn’t get to go to the funeral, I didn’t even know there was a funeral. I didn’t get to speak to the family,” she said. “You don’t get to be part of that ending.”

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