One of the sadnesses one experiences when associating with rough sleepers for any length of time is that some die, and while death is something we can’t avoid for we all will die sometime and no one knows when, rough sleepers die at a faster rate than the rest of the population. The tragedy is that being a rough sleeper makes premature death a more likely occurrence because of health and other factors and often that death could have been avoided.
In the past week, I have learned of three rough sleeper friends dying, two I knew moderately well and were well known to many of the other rough sleepers and those who work among them. One named Gary, and I give his real name as most who had dealings with him are now aware, died on Saturday. Earlier that morning he seemed ok. Actually he was not ok but no one expected that later that day he would be found dead in a street just off the High Street. The details are still being pieced together. Soon we will know. Understandably, Gary’s death has had an impact on many, who like me feel sadness and grief as well as a degree of helplessness given if things were different, as they should have been, he would still be with us.
While it is easy to point the finger at those who could have helped but didn’t, this is not the place although I will return to the “we’re doing all we can” question later. During the course of my being among rough sleepers, I met Gary on several occasions, and while sometimes he was inebriated with alcohol to varying extents, I generally found him pleasant and courteous. On a recent occasion, I recall trying to persuade him to engage with services who had already stated they wanted to help him. On the last occasion I spoke with him, he was with another well known rough sleeper on a bench in Warrior Park. We had a short but agreeable conversation. Shortly after I was taken to task by two men who witnessed the exchange and remonstrated with me that I shouldn’t be talking to people such as Gary and his friend. After counting to ten, I calmly told them I was catching up with my brothers and quietly walked away.
Before returning to the somber but necessary story of rough sleepers I knew recently dying on my patch, I want to return to a different story that is strangely related, albeit tenuously. This came under a headline: “Protests as rough sleepers bed down in town bus station” in the Southend Echo (17/08/15). It recounts not only are rough sleepers bedding down in the town centre bus station but also in some nearby disused garages and comes on top of the widely reported rough sleepers sleeping in tents on the beach and on the cliffs story. It quotes Councillor Martin Terry saying “We are offering support and help”. My first reaction was what support and what help? Recently I produced two blogs (click here and here) with the title “We’re doing all we can” which is a quote attributed to Councillor David Norman, the portfolio holder responsible for homelessness. I did meet with David shortly after and we had a positive exchange and before that I have spoken with Martin who I know shares some of my concerns. However, my skepticism remains and the avoidable death of rough sleepers is one of several reasons for this. In fairness to the current administration, they have done more in terms of engaging than the previous one. After trying to contact the previous portfolio holder, Councillor Lesley Salter, it became a matter of three strikes and you are out, as I couldn’t be bothered engaging with someone who doesn’t have the courtesy to respond. My invitation to any involved in commissioning services remains – come out with me and see the need for yourself.
What I would love to see happen is a table (it can be an imaginary one), with three columns, produced. The first column will be a list of names of those falling in the rough sleeper category (I would guess there may be over 100 known to the services in Southend and more that aren’t). The second would be what support has been given and what help is being offered. The third would be how the rough sleepers view the help/support offered (if at all). I suspect there will be many discrepancies and, without pre-empting the conclusions of this fictitious study, I would reckon that it would point to not being enough being done and the help and support offered as inadequate (an issue covered in earlier blogs and no doubt will be again).
There are two further issues of concern. There are several agencies trying to help rough sleepers and there is a lot of joint agency working, but there could always be more. I feel for example that those who help on a voluntary basis could be better utilized, especially as they have often gained that all important trust of rough sleepers that the statutory services haven’t. There is a well worn saying: “you can lead a horse to water but cannot make it drink” and some feel fairly justified that they have done their bit if they do this. But time after time the horse doesn’t drink and how many times do I advise rough sleepers to go to our main helping the homeless service (HARP) and they don’t, for all sorts of reasons (discussed in other blogs). One of these is Gary, because that was the sort of conversation I was having with him a little prior to his death. Sometimes volunteers can be the key as they might cajole and stand over etc. the horse until it does drink, yet for reasons such as confidentiality that does not happen nearly enough. The second issue is agencies doing similar things not getting on with each other and the people who lose out are the rough sleepers. What we all need to remember it is not about us, but it is about them.
So back to Gary – I wish there is more I could do, but now that he is dead there is little to be done – at least for Gary!? I will be paying my respects as I hope to be involved in putting on a memorial service in his memory. I know many have been affected and I hope I can, along with others, provide some pastoral support and use whatever opportunity that is afforded to provide some form of closure. Then I am aware there are many other Gary’s on the streets of Southend and up and down the land. I hope I can, along with others, do something to help bring them into a better place.
Rest in Peace Gary!