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.
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.