Freeman Brothers has been based in West Sussex since 1855 and this year celebrates 165 years of service to our local communities in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint. We see our role as funeral directors as not only helping people at their time of bereavement but seeking to be a source of information and advice beforehand. Dying Matters Awareness Week is an excellent opportunity to do this and we always like to engage with the topics they suggest for the different days of that week. Today, the topic is homelessness.
In order to write this blog, Funeral Arranger Chrissie Wilkie has given her own experience of knowing someone who became homeless, and spoke to one of our local charity partners. Ian Wilkins of Crawley Open House kindly gave his thoughts on the topic, which feature later in the post. First, Chrissie gives her experience…
How many times have you come across a homeless person and either sheepishly dug into your pockets for some loose change and thrown it down, avoiding all eye contact, or do you walk past at a brisk pace, making no reference to the fact that there is anybody there at all?
Do they make you feel uncomfortable?
Should their deaths be mourned, or is it better for society to completely ignore their existence?
No one grows up aspiring to become one of the 250,000 homeless population who have nowhere to really call ‘home’. On any typical night between 6,000 and 7,000 people sleep rough in the UK. The rest are either in some form of temporary accommodation, hostels, or night shelters. (Crisis report, November 2018)
At some point in their lives I feel sure that they had aspirations for a fulfilling life, rather like you or I. Many will have grown up in incredibly difficult (if not traumatic) circumstances- which we will discover more about later in this blog.
I know this all to be true from bitter experience, having watched our Best Man at our wedding go from a career-driven family man, to losing everything, including his life.
He was the life and soul wherever he went – he was the one of those people that everyone loved being around, he was intelligent, astoundingly funny and effortlessly successful. His colleagues envied him, and his friends adored him. He had it all, including a lovely wife, two small children and a mortgage.
Looking back, it must have been a real burden keeping up the façade; impossible to be the loveable rogue and keep his audience entertained all of the time. Over time, his drinking increased- as did his new passion for taking Class A substances.
After endless stints in the best rehab facilities in the UK-paid for by his company- his family made the incredibly tough decision to walk away from him before he destroyed them all. He became a shell of the man that he once was, now living back at his parents’ house. He lost interest in his appearance, and his ability to work became impossible, the hangers-on left and he eventually deserted his true friends.
His lifestyle attracted a new type of crowd, one that helped to fill the dark void, and one that was to lead him down a one-way path that he never recovered from. He simply disappeared from our lives.
Years later, by pure chance, we passed him sleeping on a park bench. There was very little that resembled the man we loved and once knew and, despite reconnecting not long afterwards he died alone of throat cancer, aged 49.
I chose not to go to his funeral, and looking at my decision years later, I realise that was because I felt guilty. Guilty and incredibly sad that I didn’t- and couldn’t- do anything to save him. Upon reflection, I should have attended the funeral. He was not just a stranger with untold demons, but my friend and he deserved better.
My story is not unique, and it was more important than ever during Dying Matters Awareness Week to learn more about the hidden deaths of homeless people in the UK. All lives matter and their deaths are too important to ignore.
Ian has worked at Crawley Open House, the homeless shelter in Crawley, for 14 years in a variety of roles. He spent 5 years as an outreach worker, trying to look after the rough sleepers and street drinkers of the town. There were also some who lived in cars, tents, outbuildings and between various friends’ sofas and floors.
The life expectancy for male rough sleepers is scarily low at 47 – and for women it is even lower, at 43 (Crisis and St Mungo’s 2017).
Ian shared the following experiences:
The one thing I learned was that the homeless were very much people like you and me, but a collision of circumstances had taken them down a particular route. They still had hopes, dreams and fears, but most of them felt a disconnection from mainstream society and believed that they could never reconnect to ‘normal’ life (whatever that is!) with all its costs and responsibilities. When I talked with them about dying, few wanted it, but many were tired of living as well. They viewed death often with a weary resignation and sense of inevitability, as they had seen so many of their friends and peers pass away.
There were very few of them that I didn’t learn to like. They were funny, trusting, brave and generous. Every one of them had a story. Many had never really had much chance in life. Several described how they looked after their parents from a young age, rather than the other way around. Many found their ‘family’ amongst their fellow addicts and street homeless friends.
I carried the coffin of one of my Scottish homeless friends recently at the request of his family. He was just 46, and I had known him for nearly 10 years. We disagreed on just about everything- about religion, football and politics- but loved each other and made each other laugh. We tried and tried to get him to moderate his drinking, but his life had been painful, and every time he got a bit sober the pain came back… so he drank again to make it go away for a while. I was in the GP’s surgery when the experienced doctor told him that he had never seen a worse set of liver test results, and that he could expect to be dead in 6 months. The penny somehow dropped, and he begged to go to rehab.
This is easier said than done, but with the help of the local drug and alcohol team we knitted together a plan which he miraculously stuck to. We eventually got him into a detox and residential rehab, where he stuck at it and made great new friends. He was moved to a little house on the coast and started fishing and playing golf (badly). I visited him and was astonished – he looked so much better, and we had fish and chips by the sea as he told me how he wanted to get back to doing bits of building work and plumbing. It was the last time I saw him alive. For some reason he relapsed, and it killed him.
One of our main jobs at the homeless shelter is to give people hope. Hope that the next few years can be better than the last few. They CAN make positive relationships, find meaningful work, get hobbies, get a bit healthier and maybe see their kids again. There is help for people and given the right practical and emotional support some of them do it. We see some of them a few years later with new partners and pushing pushchairs, or with new jobs and new sets of positive friends.
As we all experience a ‘new’ way of living through this pandemic, it’s vital that it teaches us that things can be done differently, compassion and empathy must be the overriding factor. Each one of us can choose to make a difference to the lives of the homeless once our new world emerges.
Prior to her sharing the story via the blog, Chrissie’s colleagues weren’t aware of this experience from her past, and we are incredibly grateful that she chose to tell it here. Thanks also to Ian, who took time out to give his thoughts during an incredibly busy period for him and his colleagues.