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Islington homeless deaths: Four men have died in 12 months, investigation reveals

PUBLISHED: 10:48 22 October 2018 | UPDATED: 14:45 23 October 2018

Neculai Popa, who died in December. Picture: The Big Issue

Neculai Popa, who died in December. Picture: The Big Issue

Archant

A chatty Big Issue seller who died alone in a hostel room. A table tennis-playing “teddy bear” who killed himself. At least four people who were homeless in Islington have died over the last 12 months, but no one is recording their deaths.

Some time in February this year, a man known simply as Jayjay died in a property in Holloway.

It was only by chance that his death came to light in August – and when his friends found out, the coroner could tell them nothing more.

Rachel Woolf, then a project worker for a homeless support project at St Stephen’s Church in Canonbury, recalls the moment her former client’s name came up in conversation at a Costa Coffee in the Holloway Road.

“We were sat there having a gossip and a chat,” she said, describing the aftermath of one of The Manna group’s regular outings. “Someone mentioned that he had died.

A homeless man outside Highbury and Islington station. Picture: Polly HancockA homeless man outside Highbury and Islington station. Picture: Polly Hancock

“We couldn’t have a shrine for him, and it was too late to do a memorial service.

“That’s what’s so sad about it. So few people are informed, and none of the community they actually did have can be part of their death, or grieving it.”

An investigation by the Gazette can reveal Jayjay was one of at least four men who died in Islington over the past year who had been either sleeping rough, sofa-surfing or in temporary accommodation.

But although homelessness is on the rise across London, no organisation officially counts or registers these deaths.

A person sleeping rough under the bridge in Stroud Green Road. Picture: Polly HancockA person sleeping rough under the bridge in Stroud Green Road. Picture: Polly Hancock

This month, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism launched a national campaign called Dying Homeless, which this newspaper is backing, that seeks to make these incidents a matter of public record by telling the stories of those who died.

They counted 449 homeless people who have died across the UK since October 2017. A total of 109 of these happened in London.

In response, the Office for National Statistics has now said it will start counting homeless deaths – raising questions as to why no public body was tasked with this previously.

Of the four men who have died in Islington, the name of just one – Neculai Popa – had been in the public domain. The others have come to light with the help of local charities and records held at St Pancras Coroners’ Court. This is what we know about them.

An official count on behalf of Islington in autumn 2017 found 27 people sleeping on the streets in a single night. Picture: Polly HancockAn official count on behalf of Islington in autumn 2017 found 27 people sleeping on the streets in a single night. Picture: Polly Hancock

Neculai Popa, 33, is the first of four men we can track who died homeless or vulnerably housed in Islington this year. He became homeless four years ago after his relationship broke down.

After a spell in Camden Market Mr Popa became a familiar face as a Big Issue vendor outside Sainsbury’s in Upper Street.

Living on the streets had left him with serious health problems and he was an inpatient at University College Hospital several times in the six months before his death last December.

In that time he had become firm friends with several customers, including Amparo Escobedo, who told the Big Issue: “He had an amazing heart. We became friends. We started calling each other Bro and Sis – a way to tell him he wasn’t alone.”

That winter, residents began a crowdfunding campaign to ensure he had shelter over the winter, and raised £1,000.

But on December 5, Mr Popa died in his hostel room before the £3,000 target was reached.

A memorial event was held on January 20 in the garden of St Mary’s church, yards from his former pitch.

Kevin Moore, 51, had family in Islington but had been living in hostels and on the streets for some time prior to his death in April.

He was a frequent visitor to The Manna, stopping by to see old friends every two to three weeks, and was remembered fondly as a “complete teddy bear” and “a fantastic table-tennis player”.

On April 18 this year, he was found hanged at a property in the Dalston area of Hackney.

An inquest in September concluded he had killed himself.

“Jayjay” is thought to have been about 40 and was vulnerably housed in Holloway at the time of his death in February.

He was also a regular at The Manna, and regularly stepped in to clean up after weekly sessions. Mrs Woolf said: “He would do all the sweeping and mopping for free to give back to the community that helped him. He was a lovely bloke.”

The coroner could not confirm any details about Jayjay or his death, but he is understood to have died alone.

Of the fourth man, Frank Gregson, nothing is known but his name and the fact he died in the past 12 months. He was known to local charities.

In 2017-18, some 358 people were assessed as homeless by Islington Council; 745 Islington households were in temporary accommodation as of March. An official count on behalf of the local authority last autumn logged 27 rough sleepers on the streets in a single night.

Islington Council has no single system in place to record homeless deaths, but they are flagged up if the death is reported or the person was known to housing teams.

Government guidance issued in August stated all homeless deaths should be investigated.

In Islington, they are not automatically subject to a safeguarding adults review, but other types of review may be held and the council encourages referrals.

The council’s housing chief Cllr Diarmaid Ward said: “The council is deeply concerned about the deaths of any homeless person and has been calling for a joined-up, national approach to recording homeless deaths for some time. We welcome the announcement by the Office of National Statistics that it will begin recording and producing data on this.

“We also call on the Government to properly fund help for homeless people, and to change the national rules around funding so that vulnerable people such as Neculai Popa, whose death was deeply felt by people in Islington, are not penalised for being poor.

“We are continuing to work hard with specialist agencies and charities to help people into secure, safe accommodation with the support they need.”

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Homeless deaths: The national picture

At least 449 people have died homeless in the last year all across the UK, more than a person a day, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found.

They include a former soldier, an astrophysicist and a travelling musician. Some were found in shop doorways in the height of summer, others in tents hidden in winter woodland.

Some were sent, terminally ill, to dingy hostels and yet others saw out their last days in hospital beds. Some lay dead for hours, weeks or months before anyone found them. Three men’s bodies were so badly decomposed by the time they were discovered that forensic testing was needed to identify them.

They died from violence, drug overdoses, terminal illnesses and suicide. One man’s body showed signs of prolonged starvation.

Lord John Bird, founder of The Big Issue, said: “This is the worst indictment against street-dwelling I’ve heard in years. The streets are a place where neglect kills. Death on our streets is a human rights abuse too far.”

Jon Sparkes, chief exec of UK homeless charity Crisis, said: “Behind these statistics are 449 unique human beings.

“Not only will 449 families or significant others have to cope with their loss – they will have to face the injustice that their loved one was forced to live the last days of their life without the dignity of a decent roof over their head, and a basic safety net that might have prevented their death.

“Not only has it happened, but troublingly, it has happened unchecked.”

When a homeless person dies, it can be difficult for those that knew them to find out what has happened.

Police can only search their logs with a precise date and location, and the arcane electronic system used by London’s coroners means they can only conduct a search of the public record if a full name is given.

A memorial service for the homeless organised by St Martin-in-the-Fields and London-wide charity Housing Justice will be held at the church in Trafalgar Square on November 8. The four men whose deaths we have learned of in Islington are among those whose names are due to be read out.

• If you know more about any of the people in this story and would like to add some information to our article please e-mail hannah.somerville@archant.co.uk or call 020 7433 0122.

∙ People in Islington who are worried about becoming homeless should call the council’s Housing Aid Team on 020 7527 2000 or email advice.housing@islington.gov.uk.

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