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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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After life...

November 01 2015
 Candles will be lit at the memorial service.  © Amnesty International Candles will be lit at the memorial service. © Amnesty International
"I'm not afraid of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens." Woody Allen is not the only one of us to avoid facing up to death.
"I'm not afraid of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens." Woody Allen is not the only one of us to avoid facing up to death.

Dying is something we rarely talk about - despite the fact that it will happen to us all one day. But some homeless charities are trying to change that. On 5 November, Housing Justice and The Connection at St Martin's are due to hold their annual service of commemoration for homeless people who have died in the past year. The names of the deceased will be read out in the service at St Martin-in-the-Fields church on Trafalgar Square, alongside hymns, readings and songs. Around 150 names had already been submitted in October.

These are the people who are known to staff and volunteers of London day centres, hostels, churches, shelters and outreach services. They might not have had a big funeral or an obituary in the paper, but their lives were important.

It's not just about marking people's passing, according to Housing Justice; it's a time to remember and celebrate their lives. They may have been complicated, but every one of them had something to offer.

For many, the annual service is extremely emotional. Perhaps that's because for many people who are homeless, especially those living on the streets, death can cast a hefty shadow at times.

You've probably heard the headline stat: the average age of death for a homeless person is 47, compared with 77 in the general population. It's a shocking figure. St Mungo's Broadway recently delivered a petition to health secretary Jeremy Hunt calling on the government to urgently improve healthcare for homeless people.

"Thousands have backed our Homeless Health 47 petition," said Howard Sinclair, Chief Executive of St Mungo's Broadway. "Like us, they believe no one should be discharged from hospital back onto the streets and no one should be barred from mental health treatment because they are struggling to tackle drug or alcohol issues… It's a scandal."

As well as campaigning for better health care, St Mungo's Broadway provides advice, support and care for hostel residents who are dying, through its Palliative Care service.

In recent months it has also piloted a volunteer befriending service, offering companionship and emotional support to clients in their final year, months or even weeks of life.

And now the charity, which already works with people who are dying, is exploring the possibility of a dedicated end-of-life facility in London. They describe it as a "holistic environment to meet the medical, nursing, psychological, social and spiritual care of those whose care cannot be managed at home or on the streets".

Reasons for death vary; with many struggling with addiction and others feeling the after-effects of life on the streets even after they have come inside, the risk factors for homeless or formerly homeless people are clear.

On the St Mungo's Broadway blog earlier this year, Peter Kennedy, who coordinates the end-of-life service which currently visits people in hostels and hospitals, noted: "Around a fifth of all deaths are sudden and unexpected, such as a fall or an accidental overdose, with advanced liver disease a primary cause of death in over half of all remaining deaths."

But even when death is expected, it can still come as a shock. That's why it's important that we don't try and hide from it. And it's important too that there is time to grieve, and time to remember.

As Alastair Murray, head of projects at Housing Justice, says: "It's important to give dignity to people who haven't always had that in life, and to make sure they are not forgotten."

 

John

John, who had been homeless, was one of Peter Kelly’s closest friends, a drinking buddy and a good pal. He died in September. Peter tells Jason Kelly that he will be missed.

“I am still gutted he is not here. I think he was the same age as me – 56 or something – but I’ve no idea how he died, if he got liver failure or just gave up.

“We were great pals. I’d just go up to his house and I’d chap [knock] the door and John would shout: “Come’on in.”

“I’ve not got a telly and one day I saw him walking up London Road and he had a telly. I said: “Where you going with that?” and he laughed. “We’re going up to yours.” And I’m like: “I don’t want a telly. It will just be like an ornament.” But he wanted me to have it.

“He did have family; his brother used to come through a lot and his sister was always good to him so it’s not just a case of he got forgotten. But he never had a routine with them, like seeing them every day.

“It’s the first funeral I’ve been to that I never went for a drink after it with the family; well, I got a cuppa tea, but no alcohol. I didn’t know all these people; I just really knew John and they’re looking at me like: “Who the hell is he with tears in his eyes?”. Although I’m gutted, you have just got to deal with it; life goes on.

 

Ellen

Alan Cole of the Simon Community remembers Ellen Mullin as a great human being

Ellen Mullin was one of our drivers – and she was absolutely fantastic, really one of the best volunteers we’ve had.

You phoned her up and said “Could you drive for us on Friday?” and even if she had something on, she’d get it done. She’d just sort of shift us a wee bit forward or a wee bit back so she could fit in the driving.

There was never a ’No’ in her vocabulary. And we weren’t the only charity she volunteered for. I would say she drove for 12 hours a day – she was helping people all over the place.

Then all of a sudden the doctor sent her to the hospital and they found out that she had cancer – leukaemia. Two of our volunteers went to see her that week and she told them that the hospital had only given her three months.

The next weekend we went there, she was dead.

We went down for the memorial service in Kew Gardens. And it was fantastic. Even now we talk about Ellen and what she did for us.

She had a timetable that she stuck to every week – never let anybody down. Even when she was in hospital she said, “Is everything getting done?”

I think when she was brought up there was little bit of struggle, and people helped her – so she returned the favour. She had that sort of magnetic thing that people get on with. She was a great woman.

 

Bereavement can be hard, so find someone you can talk to

Bereavement Advice Centre (0800 634 9494 – free but some mobile providers may charge): Advice on all aspects of bereavement, from registering the death to benefit queries.

Breathing Space Scotland (0800 83 85 87 – free from landlines and mobile phones): Advice and information for anyone feeling down.

Cruse Bereavement Care (0844 477 9400 – costs apply): Helpline offering emotional support. Email (helpline@cruse.org.uk) and face-to-face support

Samaritans (116 123 – free from landline and mobile phones): National organisation for those needing someone to talk to or feeling suicidal. Email support available (jo@samaritans.org).

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (0300 111 5065): Help and support for those personally affected by a suicide. Email support (sobs.support@hotmail.com)

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