We must never become inured to the suffering of the homeless
Undertaker Rupert Callendar, who conducted the funeral of a homeless man in Totnes, believes we need to reassess society’s attitude to those who adopt an alternative lifestyle.
Michael Gething died in tragic circumstances last month, cold and wet and alone on the street of a Devon town. His funeral – in the streets he walked every day – was about affording him a dignity that his daily life lacked. And whatever our views on the homeless and what needs to be done, he deserved that final act of respect.
Michael had been sleeping on the streets of Totnes for 18 months when he died, possibly of hypothermia. He died after a sudden downpour of hail soaked his sleeping bag. He was 42. I remember that hail lying on the streets that night. It made me feel excited. It made the town look like a Christmas card. It may have killed Michael.
Michael was gentle, wary and troubled and, in the last few weeks of his life, increasingly desperate. He had a look of sadness and preoccupation that somehow brought concerned people towards him. Michael had been on the streets – on and off – since he was 18. The reasons are complicated and known only to him. Even to his family, much of Michael's life was a mystery.
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There are no simple answers, no heroes to be cheered or villains to be booed. Michael had a family who loved him, he had offers of council accommodation, government agencies tried to help him, social services, charities and churches looked out for him, the soup kitchen in Totnes provided the closest thing he had to a home. Individuals cared about him and tried to help.
Shortly before he died, he had been offered accommodation in Dartmouth, but instead he chose to live on the streets of Totnes. He said people treated him a bit differently there. He became a part of the community.
For those of us who have so-called normal lives, it's almost impossible to imagine choosing to live on the streets, with all its discomfort and danger, rather than accepting any roof over our heads. Surely if a council offers shelter, you would take it. The thought of sleeping outside this summer with its unending rain is unbearable enough, let alone now, as winter starts to bite.
Michael had a streak of stubbornness, a mistrust of authority. People like him are hard to reach, prickly, suspicious.
A life on the streets makes you wary of everyone. When you've been harassed, judged, moved on and beaten up, when you wake at the sound of every passing step in case it's some drunk looking to kick your head in, the control you have is limited. If the only power you have is to walk away, even if that means walking away from help, sometimes that's what you do.
We all make our choices out of the options we have. Some have more options than others. One man's shelter from the storm is another man's trap. A roof over your head might seem like the end of your troubles, but for someone like Michael it could be just the beginning. It's not as straightforward as saying the church turned him away or the council failed to provide for him. For whatever reasons, Michael chose to live like he did.
He was undoubtedly running away from his responsibilities or his demons or the tragedies and mistakes that littered his life. But do any of us honestly face ours?
People have said that Michael drank a lot of cider. It's true, he would take his benefit money and buy a couple of litres. Though I never saw him drunk. Having said that, nearly everybody I know with a good job and a nice house and a loving family down half a bottle of red wine every night. I don't see any difference, just fewer reasons. Michael was a rough sleeper with mental health issues and few comforts in his life. Cider numbed him enough to get through another wet day. He never touched drugs.
It's easy to level criticism against Michael for the life he appeared to choose. Most of us work hard and struggle just to stand still in these difficult times, but let's not kid ourselves that any of us really deserve our nice lives any more than Michael deserved his difficult life.
Michael didn't die on the street because we're better than him, he died because our world is far from perfect, because our society fails so many of our neediest. You don't just have to look on the streets to see people in trouble. There is poverty everywhere – good people who are one unexpected bill away from disaster.
I have no answers or demands. I don't know whether more could have been done. I know that the benefit system is punitive and getting worse, that the poor are being targeted and demonised. Dartington Hall, just up the road from where Michael died, is where the Welfare State was designed and drafted. We should feel incredibly proud of that and we should feel ashamed and angry that it is in the process of being utterly dismantled.
It would be meaningless to pledge that this won't happen again. Of course it will happen again, it will always happen, in every town. But when it happens we need to notice, to shout and grieve and carry them through the streets together in shame and sorrow. The homeless aren't a different species, they are ordinary people whose lives have fallen apart, people who have dropped through the net. Michael might have deliberately cut his way out of that net, but his life was worth just as much as yours or mine and we have to keep reaching out.