Sadly, given average life expectancy of homeless people is considerably less than that for the non-homeless, it should come as no surprise when those who interact regularly with the homeless find they are dying at a faster rate than the people we know who are not homeless. Yesterday’s Echo (2/2) contained a report titled “Seventh homeless death in six months – life and death on Southend’s streets”, all of who were known to me, although two were not strictly homeless, although they had been prior to then. It was poignant, given I was quoted in the report, even though I would have preferred not to be, given the unwelcome exposure that sometimes follows. But then on the other hand, it is important to tell the wider community some of the facts of life on the streets.
Yesterday, I attended the funeral of one of those homeless people who had died. It was good to pay one’s respects, to see such a good turnout (including from the among the rough sleeper community) and for the service and the wake afterwards to have gone so well. As is usual on such occasions, it was good to come together to share our grief as well as good memories. One sadness, bringing home one the realities faced by many who live on the streets, some chose instead of attending the wake following the service to find a spot where they could consume alcohol. While it is impossible to be prescriptive, and it is important not to be judgmental, the reality is that for some of those who died there were unexercised demons e.g. around alcohol misuse and mental ill health, which is partly instrumental in some of these folk being on the streets. For those who died, it is important to honour their memory and consider what we can do to help those who are living on the streets and bringing them to a better place.
With that thought in mind, I decided to go along to the newest soup kitchen in the town: “Homeless Street Hub. Caring for the Homeless & Vulnerable”. It was a positive experience and I found the set-up well organized with the people being served well catered for as far as food goes. It was good to meet the volunteers, a number for the first time. I was struck by their dedication. It was also good to speak with the guests, most of which I knew. Two stand out conversations is illustrative of my earlier point. One had a problem with alcohol and another had a mental health issue. While they appreciated the help and support given at the soup kitchen, these are also the issues that hinder them from moving on. While it was good to have an honest and open conversation in a setting of good will, it was also sad knowing that until these issues are dealt with the same people would likely be returning to this and other soup kitchens, still homeless and maybe not having moved on much and, without being melodramatic, at a much greater risk of dying prematurely.
I find myself returning often to the issue of homelessness and do so with a certain unease knowing some of the issues had not been dealt with as they should. It is fantastic that in my town there are so many who care and that is why we have at the last count at least four soup kitchen type operations running as well as other outreaches to the homeless, mostly volunteer led. Besides the obvious concern that I have recently alluded to that we don’t always sing from the same hymn sheet, it is possible we are not smart enough in our activities and do not complement well enough the work of the “official” services that are out there. There is work to do. As for Tom and Brian, for it is they who are the latest homeless deaths reported by the Echo, I remember them fondly, free spirits who gave a sense of joy, whose lives were cruelly cut short. May they rest in peace.