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Housing

Over 140 people died while homeless in London in the past year. This is how they’re remembered

“We’re not just talking about homeless people who have died. We’re talking about people”

The deaths of people experiencing homelessness too often pass without much to mark them. But, once a year, a church in central London fills with people committed to fixing that. A service of remembrance takes place in St Martin in the Fields to read out the names of those who have died in London.

This year, the number of names increased. Over 140 were read out – all people who had known homelessness. The average age of those who died was just 48. 

“Each person is a name, each person is a character, each person is someone who has had their highs and their lows, and their struggles and their gifts to give society,” said Richard Carter, the reverend who led the service which took place this week.

“In this service I’m really trying to show people and get people to realise we’re not just talking about homeless people who have died. We’re talking about people… and it’s a tragedy that so many are still dying needing help.”

Names are submitted by night shelters, homeless organisations and churches and, at the end of the service, cards with the names of the dead are handed out to be kept and remembered over the next year.

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Carter highlighted the number of names of people who had come from abroad, only to find little help in the UK.

“A lot of the names of the people we read out are people who came to this country seeking belonging, safety, asylum in this country. There’s a lot of foreign nationals in this list. I think one of the biggest injustices of our nation is that people who come from other parts of the world seeking safety here, seeking belonging, actually often find that the problems here are even greater than they’ve left behind,” he said. 

“We’re not just talking about homeless people who have died. We’re talking about people,” said Revd Richard Carter. Image: Eliza Pitkin/Big Issue

“They’ve maybe left war or poverty or disaster in their own nations thinking that the United Kingdom is going to provide a place of safety, instead of which they find this hostile environment.”

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One of those to read the names was Rachel Woolf, the founder of Street Storage, which provides people experiencing homelessness with a way to keep their belongings safe. Woolf also read a tribute to Agris Baucis, one of those who had died.

“I’m a Christian myself and [the service] helps me process what we have to go through as people who work with this community. There’s such a limitation of how deaths are registered and certified in the UK for people in the street community, that it’s a really respectful and important way for people to get together and remember these people as human beings,” Woolf says.

A combination of Brexit, the end of the pandemic, and the cost of living crisis has made things more difficult for people over the last year, Woolf says.

“We’re seeing a lot more families and children fleeing domestic abuse, a lot more children leave home earlier than they would, and a lot more people in working poverty, who have full-time or part-time jobs and are sleeping on the street,” she told the Big Issue.

Elodie Berland, who works with Streets Kitchen, read a tribute to Lawrence David Bradshaw Dodger, who she met at the beginning of the pandemic while he was sleeping on the streets of Camden.

​​“We wanted to remember him and make him proud,” Berland said.

“The service is important for me to remember Dodger, to remember all our friends who passed.”

Among those present there was an expectation that things will get worse, and that next year’s service will have a longer list of names.

“A lot of people in this last two or three weeks of rain have come in because their clothes are all wet and they haven’t got a change of clothes,” Carter said, adding he had noticed a tangible increase in how hungry people are.

The service ended with performances from The Choir With No Name, a choir for people affected by homelessness, and Streetwise Opera, which also works with people who have experienced homelessness.

Members of Streetwise Opera. Image: Eliza Pitkin/Big Issue

Sam Chaplin, who has led The Choir With No Name for 10 years, said: “Coming to do the service today is really grounding, and makes me remember, almost, that what we’re doing is a matter of life and death. That level of week-in week-out support and feeling a sense of purpose and joy and community is the kind of thing that lifts people out of a negative spiral.”

The service is part of wider efforts to record the number of people who die while experiencing homelessness. Led by the Museum of Homelessness, the Dying Homeless Project lets people submit names to a memorial page throughout the year.

“I love the dignity that it brings,” Chaplin added, “and hearing the names read out. Our choir is called the Choir With No Name, and all too often people can feel nameless. And so just to mention name after name after name, it’s saying ‘you do have a name, and you do have dignity, and you will be honoured.”

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