Nobody counts when homeless people die in Havering so we did – here are their stories
- Credit: Archant
An elderly man found slumped at the wheel of his car, a problem drinker estranged from his father and a man with lung disease who passed away in the depths of winter - at least three people have died homeless in Havering this year, but no record is being kept of their deaths.
When David Hart was found on the sofa of a Rainham flat this spring, it fell to local charities to organise a memorial service in his name. Just three people came.
Little is known about Mr Hart’s life before he began sofa-surfing at the age of about 50, and the circumstances are still being investigated by the coroner.
But this tragic incident has not been reviewed by the local authority, and no-one will determine what can be learned to stop such a death happening again.
An investigation by the Romford Recorder can reveal Mr Hart is one of three people we can track who died in the last year in Havering, who were either sleeping rough, of no fixed abode or sofa-surfing.
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But although homelessness is on the rise in Havering and across London, no organisation officially counts or registers these deaths.
Earlier this year the Bureau of Investigative Journalism launched a national campaign called Dying Homeless, which this newspaper is backing, that seeks to make homeless deaths a matter of public record by telling the stories of those who have died.
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They were able to count 449 homeless people who have died across the UK since October 2017; 109 of these happened in London.
The Office for National Statistics said on Tuesday that it will now start counting homeless deaths - raising questions as to why this was not already being done.
Jon Sparkes, the chief executive of 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.”
Shelter chief executive Polly Neate said rising levels of homelessness were “a national disgrace”, adding: “It is utterly unforgivable that so many homeless people are dying unnoticed and unaccounted for.”
The three men whose deaths we have learned of in Havering were not part of the Bureau’s initial count, but instead their stories been unearthed over the past week.
This is what we know about them:
1. Name unknown
This man was in his mid-60s and was found outside a block of flats in Petersfield Avenue, Harold Hill, in the early hours of January 18 this year.
According to a support worker he had become homeless suddenly and had been “overwhelmed”.
The man had a lung disease called COPD, which can cause breathing difficulties, and had been out of work for some time due to his physical health, the support worker said.
But he also struggled with his mental wellbeing and had problems with alcohol abuse.
After his body was found a file was prepared for the coroner by police, but no inquest took place and there is no ongoing investigation.
His death instead came to light locally after an old neighbour conducted her own research.
It transpired he was at the morgue in Queen’s Hospital, with no details recorded.
2. David Hart
Mr Hart had been sofa-surfing across Havering for about 18 months and was staying with a friend in Rainham when he died in May 2018.
He was estranged from his father in Spain and also struggled with alcohol abuse, according to a charities he had intermittent contact with.
Thought to be 50 years old, he had briefly stayed at a homeless shelter in Romford but was unable to cope with the strict ban on drinking.
His memorial was held two months ago at the Salvation Army church.
3. Colin Ellis
Originally from Surrey, Mr Ellis was in his early 60s and was found behind the steering wheel of his car in late autumn 2017.
By the time he was discovered, he had been there for several days.
Mr Ellis had come to the Romford after a family tragedy and also struggled with alcohol abuse.
It is understood that he had relatives in Rush Green but he had been unable to stay with them.
Thought of as “everybody’s grandad” among the local homeless community, charity workers recalled Mr Ellis regularly bought food and gave his own cash to other people on the streets.
Last year 330 people were assessed as homeless and in priority need by Havering Council - almost double the figure for ten years ago.
An official count on behalf of the local authority last autumn logged 22 rough sleepers on the streets in a single night.
But while this provides a snapshot of the issue in the run-up to winter, the true figure is likely to be higher as volunteers and officers may have missed less obvious rough sleepers like those sleeping in their cars.
The council’s policy for rough sleeper deaths is that police contact its multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) team if a death has been a direct result of homelessness.
But although police were aware of Mr Ellis and the unnamed man, the council said no such deaths had been reported this year, in contrast to what we have found.
Government guidance issued in August also stated that all deaths should be investigated by local authorities.
But a spokesman for Havering said that such incidents were not automatically reviewed by the Safeguarding Adults Board, adding: “It would depend on the circumstances which led to their death and if there had been any involvement of agencies.”
When a member of the homeless community passes away, local charities sometimes take it upon themselves to reach out to families and loved ones, or host a memorial event.
Dave Chuck is the community manager for the Salvation Army church off Romford High Street, and said these services were more than about just offering comfort.
“It’s very important to recognise the value these people had to the community,” he said. “They were important to somebody. They were somebody’s son or daughter or father or friend, and they gave to the community in some way.”
Charities in Havering have recently begun signing up to the CHAIN database, a London-wide initiative started by St Mungo’s in 2014 to log and keep track of people who might be sleeping rough.
The borough has also just set up a ‘Homeless Forum’ comprising about 30 different local organisations, as well as the police and probation services, to help assess people’s needs and get them off the streets as quickly as possible.
Geoff Potts, a support worker for the charity Hope4Havering, said: “Unfortunately we can only deal with the people that want to engage with our service. We have to put the hours into the people we can help.
“Actually this borough is good at joining with one another and trying their best to help people, but they’re restricted by their budget.”
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, a travelling musician and a chatty Big Issue seller.
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.
If you know more about any of the people above and would like to add some information to our article please contact Hannah Somerville at email@example.com or call 0207 433 0122.