When I wrote two days ago about the death of Gary, one of my rough sleeper friends, I realized that it would only be a matter of time before the story would be picked up by our local newspaper. So it was, and true to form, that today’s Southend Echo ran the story under the headline “Homeless man left to die in street”.
Having read it a couple of times, I am of the view that while the article is not altogether bad it is not altogether good either. The headline, while in essence true, it is only half true, although it was helpful to know many of the details that were reported and to read some of the comments that were made. I understand some of the point of story writing is to sell newspapers and sometimes sensationalist headlines are used to further this end, but in this case there seemed not enough to back up the headline. We must wait for the result of the coroner’s inquest to find out what really happened.
While I have no desire to pontificate ahead of the verdict, I also know that rough sleepers sleeping in the open, especially if under the influence of alcohol, is not uncommon and realistically having woken someone up what are you going to do next that is helpful? Rather than leaving that person to die it is possible those who witnessed the scene did not realize there was someone who was unconscious and at risk of dying until tragically it was too late.
I felt the opening statement, “A homeless man was left to die on the streets of Southend after being thrown out of accommodation because of an alcohol problem”, lacked journalistic integrity for I doubt anyone left Gary to die, even though that is what happened. While it is regrettable he was “thrown out”, that was in all likelihood but one of many contributory reasons for the death. Later the article elaborates the reasons for being asked to leave (drinking and behaviour) which while regrettable is understandable. Sadly, journalists often fall short of the high reporting standards they ought to aspire to and seemingly only a few attain. It is also sad to think there may be no place for those who have an alcohol addiction, which could rightly be viewed as yet another form of sickness.
In the report, representatives of two agencies that have had recent dealings with Gary were quoted: Warrior Soup Kitchen and HARP. It is not my policy to comment on what other agencies think and do, and certainly not in a public forum. However, both made important points, and essentially I agree with them. Having had to exclude people under the influence of alcohol from night shelters I have managed in the past, on health and safety grounds, I realize the quandary HARP will have faced when dealing with Gary.
I understand the frustration that, as much due to lack of funds, the type of round the clock supported and supervised accommodation that might suit those with issues around substance misuse, was not available. Two snippets from Warrior quotes especially resonated: “fell through the cracks” and “he was set up to fail”. The truth is in the world of rough sleepers in my patch alone (in and around central Southend) there are many gaps and many of the gaps are big, and we place too high expectations on the person being helped when help is offered. Until we make much more headway in dealing with the gaps, the death of further rough sleepers like Gary is nigh inevitable.
Gaps include a lack of suitable affordable accommodation, appropriate and, if need be, round the clock support, a dearth sometimes of meaningful activity, an absence of professional mental health and dual diagnosis services (to reduce passing the buck) and systemic failures, not helped by an out of touch government or a council that purports to be doing all it can but isn’t, with agencies that fail to go the extra mile and a general public that doesn’t seem to care. Just maybe the Echo’s simplistic statement might be improved if the rider “and we are all to blame” were to be added!?
It remains work in progress to address all these shortcomings, with much work that needs to be progressed. For those who engage with rough sleepers, at the coal face as it were, will know, there is much we can still do despite the many challenges and obstacles we face. People needlessly dying on the streets is unacceptable and change is needed. We continue to mourn Gary’s loss and want to help those who grieve, mindful of other Garys who need helping.