An estimated 800 homeless people died in the 18 months to March 2019. In the Empty Doorway series, Simon Hattenstone and Danny Lavelle worked with Chris Michael and the Guardian Cities team to look behind this statistic and tell the stories of some of those who have died on Britain’s streets.
Wherever we went we could see tents sprouting up. These weren’t happy campers’ tents, they were the only thing people could afford to live in. It seemed to be the defining image of the austerity era, and it felt apocalyptic.
Then, last year, statistics started to emerge about the numbers of homeless people dying on the streets, from the Office for National Statistics and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The stats were shocking – 726 people last year, up 50% in just five years – but what about the lives behind them? What about the statutory bodies or charities that were supposed to help them? What about the friends and families left behind?
We’ve dedicated most of the year to telling stories about people who have died homeless, and in the process have found out so much about institutional failings, homelessness, ourselves and our readers. Neither of us are homelessness experts by any means, but we’ve had long-term connections to homelessness whether through being homeless (Lavelle) or doing voluntary work with homeless people (Hattenstone).
We’ve discovered so many alarming, recurring patterns while researching The Empty Doorway – people let out of prison or hospital on to the streets and dying, charities or councils providing supported accommodation that is inadequately supported, people denied potentially life-saving addictionor mental health treatments because of cuts, drug addicts or alcoholics being chucked out of accommodation because they are drinking or taking drugs (surprise, surprise!), charities refusing emergency shelter to EEA nationals or people who don’t come from the local area or are not eligible to benefits; kids from care ending up on the streets at an alarming rate. And on it goes.
Every person we have written about has been, to a lesser or greater extent, a victim of austerity and cuts. We’re not saying that they wouldn’t have been addicts, homeless or mentally ill without austerity, or that they wouldn’t have died horribly early, but we are saying it didn’t need to be this way.
So what do we need to make homeless deaths less likely? If we were politicians, we might reduce it to the following soundbite: cash, care and competence. Yes, lots of money does need to be invested into homelessness (not least, to properly establish Housing First, the scheme to fast-track homeless people in to permanent accommodation). We need caring people working in the caring services, supported by managers and executives who do not live in fear of losing government contracts. And finally we need competence. However cash-strapped councils or charities are, there is no excuse for some of the things we have seen. The bottom line is if you’re a charity accommodating somebody who you know is suicidal check on them regularly. Jake Humm had been dead for at least two days before the YMCA DownsLink group decided to look in on him.
We’ve also realised that we’re not the macho, scrupulously objective journalists you might see in movies. But we kind of knew that before. There have been so many times we’ve rung each others in tears or broken down when talking about these people. Seriously, it’s embarrassing when somebody who has just lost a loved one has to comfort you because you can’t cope with the horror of their story.
What has been incredibly rewarding is the discovery that our readers are even more amazing than we thought. At the start, we worried that there would be no appetite to read such bleak stories. Thankfully, we were proved wrong, We know lots of you have kept reading (terrifyingly, we can analyse all the figures online these days). So many of you have reached out to us on social media to tell us you are glad you have learned about this or that life, or you knew the people we have written about.
At a time when journalists are constantly being told that readers have short attention spans, that you only want gossip or uplifting stories because everyday life is so crap, your feedback has been incredibly heartening – your willingness to read through long, distressing stories that you know are going to end unhappily, and your eagerness to engage with them. So many of you have told us this is why they buy the paper or read us online – and that means the world to us.
This feels like it is the most meaningful project we have done in journalism –telling stories that normally go unrecorded, and finding out that so many of these people had incredible if stunted lives – the gifted physicist Hamid Farahi Alamdari, the artist Clive Dalrymple who was a CND activist and got convicted of stealing bath water, the rapper Jake Humm and the much-loved outreach worker Sharron Maasz, for starters.
But more than anything, what will remain with us is the people we have met – those families and friends who did all they could for their loved ones and found that it still wasn’t enough. Many felt a terrible mix of grief and guilt. Yet, we have never met a group (and sadly they are a group) of such kind, tortured and emotionally literate people. All of them have shared their memories and photographs to enable us to create rounded portraits of lives lost or stolen (captured with such humanity by the illustrator Alan Vest).
We have also been privileged to hear from readers who have been homeless themselves, and have managed to recover their lives, and readers who have paid tributes to homeless people they knew who have died. In future, we would like The Empty Doorway on the Guardian’s Cities website to be seen as a shared space for a community of people with a common interest – and often a common loss.
A the heart of this community will always be those homeless people who lost their lives and the loved ones who have done so much to make sure they are not forgotten. So a special thanks to Cathy Teese for telling us about her niece Aimee who died in Liverpool, Joules Humm for telling us about his son Jake, who died in Brighton; Alexandra Davis for telling us about her brother Kane Walker who died in Birmingham; Gabor Kasza for telling us about his friend Gyula Remes who died opposite the Houses of Parliament, Lee-Maria Hughes for telling us about her sister Catherine Kenny who died in Belfast, Saeed Farahi Alamdari for telling us about his brother Hamid who died in Harlow, Monica Gregory for telling us about her friend Sharron Maasz who died in Oxford, Ray Dalrymple and Aloma Owens, brother and half-sister of Clive Dalrymple who died in Manchester, and the Starr family for telling us about Mark who died in Glasgow.
This is where we have dispensed with any distant, cold-eyed journalism. None of these people are subjects or contacts to us. They have become trusted and trusting friends. So we’d like you all to raise a glass to these incredible people and the loved ones they have lost, and hope that change can start here.