Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Remembering friends

May 20 2009
Shaljean: sad collation of deaths Shaljean: sad collation of deaths
A river of ribbons commemorates London‘s homeless dead November 9th saw the annual service for those who had died homeless, held at St Martin's-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, and this year it marked a continuing tradition amidst the tumultuous changes of the construction work next door. With the work to rebuild the crypt that housed the old day centre into an extended visitors centre and 'one-stop advice shop', there have been many changes, but some of the traditions of the old Social Care Unit remain. One of them is the annual pilgrimage, another is the memorial service for those who died homeless. This service is traditionally held on the nearest Thursday to Armistice Day. It is a service where those that have passed through the doors of homelessness services, who have gone on to better or worse, but ultimately lost their lives that year, are announced; simply remembered. The man who co-ordinates much of this occasion is Roger Shaljean. Despite his retirement being announced in this paper a year or so ago, he has (as we suspected) remained a central figure in all things special about the place. Come the autumn, he begins the sad task of collating the names of those who have died during the past year from other homeless organisations. The toil of many a year warding off the cold, substance abuse or just time, can cut a life short. Some are desperately young, and the fight is lost far too early, but others go on to live to a reasonable age. Although the service is to remember those that died 'homeless', that's not really the point, for there are also those who found somewhere they could call home other than the streets. Whatever the circumstances, the service is always a dignified event. And the congregation diverse. Among them the homeless and the workers from the area, St Martin's congregation, tourists, and those who have been homeless in the past. This year there was a contingent from Unleash who contributed on the service in conjunction with St Martin's. After the initial welcome from the Reverend Liz Russell, and some traditional hymns, the real core of the service is the list of those who died homeless. As usual the list was split into four sections. The names were read out by workers, and the enormity and sadness of the occasion slowly grew. For those who knew those whose names were read out, there can be an almost overwhelming feeling of loss. Hearing those familiar names can often be the first occasion that the news is learned, that they are dead. The reading out of the names seemed almost relentless, and after each section of names, there was a minute silence. It was planned that the silence would be broken by the single toll of a bell, but instead the silence was broken by the hiss of a pressure hose across the old stonework outside. Streetwise Opera performed a number, and Alastair Murray reflected upon the hardships and triumphs of the human spirit that he had witnessed during his years working with the homeless. Every year the service has a different theme. This year, all were invited to take a paintbrush, dip it into a pot of paint, and add a name to a painting specially commissioned for the service. In other years, postcards were produced bearing an individual name from this list, and another year, a river of ribbons and names. After all was said and done, and we pondered some things that were beyond our understanding, we walked out, past the hoardings on the church, hiding the man still blasting his pressure hose. Big red hoardings that tell us of its renewal into the new century. We went back to our jobs, or wherever we needed to go, and passed the spot where somebody new to me was selling the Big Issue. If one church is particularly synonymous with the homeless it is St Martin's-in-the-Fields. The present landmark church has stood there since the 18th century, dominating a corner of Trafalgar Square. The St Martin after whom the church is named was a Roman soldier who found God, and then gave his cloak to a beggar. This story was made into action by its famous broadcasting vicar, Dick Shepherd, who threw open the church doors to the returning soldiers during the war. This open armed policy was continued into the 1940s, when the St Martin's Social Care Service was founded, eventually becoming known as the St Martin's Social Care Unit. The work put into practice there was of real quality displaying love for its fellow man fallen onto hard times. They opened a day centre, offering respite from the cold, a hearty meal, and finding new initiatives for fighting the problems those enduring homelessness, poverty, and hardship regularly faced. The unit merged with its next door neighbour, The London Connection, in 2003, losing a great name.