No Fixed Abode: How an investigation into Islington homeless deaths has fed into a new book on the heartrending national picture

A makeshift memorial in a London underpass. Picture: Maeve McClenaghan

A makeshift memorial in a London underpass. Picture: Maeve McClenaghan - Credit: Maeve McClenaghan

A new book, which gives a comprehensive picture of homelessness in Britain today, documents the work behind the Dying Homeless investigation.

Neculai Popa, who died in December past year. Photo: The Big Issue

Neculai Popa, who died in December past year. Photo: The Big Issue - Credit: Archant

The Islington Gazette contributed to the investigation, which was led by journalist Maeve McClenaghan from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to discover the true number of homeless people who die on the streets.

It logged the deaths of 800 people who died homeless across the UK in 18 months.

Her book on the findings, No Fixed Abode, will be published tomorrow - it charts the heartrending stories of people struggling to survive in a crumbling system and Maeve’s encounters with some of the courageous people who dedicate their lives to saving them.

It came about after Maeve tried to find out the number of people who die while rough sleeping in December 2017 - but soon realised no local authority in the UK held the figures.

Flowers left following the death of a homeless woman. Picture: Maeve McClenaghan

Flowers left following the death of a homeless woman. Picture: Maeve McClenaghan - Credit: Maeve McClenaghan

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“We assume things are being recorded and registered, and when I found out they weren’t, that was really worrying,” she said.

“Everyone I phoned or put in enquiries with assumed someone else was holding the data.

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“I’d talk to a police force and they’d say: ‘Try the hospital.’ They would say: ‘Try the coroner.’ They would say ‘try the council’ and they’d say ‘try the government,’ until I realised nobody was holding it.

“It was really shocking - it seems so obvious there are lessons to learn from each of these deaths and they could have been prevented.

Maeve McClenaghan. Picture: Picador

Maeve McClenaghan. Picture: Picador - Credit: Picador

“Firstly, they are falling through the gaps of the safety net we assume is there for them, but also through the gaps in the data.”

With the help of this paper, Maeve came to the figure of 800 deaths from October 2017 to March 2019.

The Gazette discovered that at least four men who had been either sleeping rough, sofa-surfing or in temporary accommodation died in Islington in the space of a year.

Of these four, the name of just one – Neculai Popa – had been in the public domain. The others - Kevin Moore, “Jayjay” and Frank Gregson - came to light with the help of charities and records held at St Pancras Coroner’s Court.

Maeve McClenaghan's book, No Fixed Abode. Picture: Picador

Maeve McClenaghan's book, No Fixed Abode. Picture: Picador - Credit: Maeve McClenaghan

“It took the work of journalists all over the country to find their names, tell the stories, and pull the information together and that was a vital part in getting to the true figure,” she said.

“Since we did the investigation with the Islington Gazette and other papers, the Office for National Statistics started to collect and publish data on people dying homeless in England, so we had a real world impact.”

Maeve documents the night she went out with Islington Council for the annual count, which seeks to establish how many people are sleeping on the streets in her book.

She also charts the work of Streets Kitchen - a grassroots organisation in Islington which supplies people with hot meals – over the course of a year, from its work at a squat to a music festival and a Christmas dinner.

“Certainly all the collaborative reporting has played a vital role in making sure this issue is kept alive, and what I’ve tried to do is find the human stories and piece together the policy cuts which have led to the crisis in the first place,” she said.

Has the safety net to prevent homelessness improved since she set out on her investigative journey?

“There was an element of the government facing up to the scale of rough sleeping and money pledged to address that, and we saw at the height of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic when people were brought in from the streets and housed, that there was recognition that being on the streets is dangerous to your health,” said Maeve.

“But, as I see it from my research, just addressing the most extreme part of people being on the streets doesn’t do anything to prevent people from being homeless, from living on the streets to sofa-surfing, and unless the government acts to address these issues earlier in the timeline, we are never going to solve the issue.

“New pots of money to address rough sleeping are welcomed, but they don’t go anywhere to cover the cuts to mental health, drug and alcohol services, the fact rents have skyrocketed and benefits have stayed low, and that there aren’t affordable properties being built.”

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