In early March the snow lay thick over the windows of Hamid Farahi’s car, obscuring the jumble of blankets, books and bags within. An entire life crammed into the passenger seat of a Peugeot 206.
Amongst the clutter was a prized possession - a letter from the office of Stephen Hawking. But 55 year-old Hamid no longer needed it.
Less than a mile down the road Hamid had been checked into a hotel, the inclement weather forcing the homeless man out of his makeshift home and into a warm room for the night. It was there that Hamid died. The cause of his death is still being investigated.
Hamid is one of 78 people the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found to have died while homeless this winter. This averages to more than two people a week, with at least ten people dying last month alone.
Despite many of these vulnerable people being known to the authorities, local journalists and charities are often the only ones that report these deaths.
The Bureau spoke to councils, hospitals, coroners offices, police forces and NGOs. Whilst there is a charitable network recording information on people sleeping rough in London, we found that there is no centralised record of when and how people die homeless in the UK. Therefore, our count is likely an underestimate.
And so today, the Bureau launched Dying Homeless, a long-term project to track and count those that die homeless on UK streets. We are asking people around the country to join us in compiling this, first-of-its-kind, dataset.
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We have already started to log some of the stories of those who have died homeless on UK streets. They include an avid gardener, a former soldier and a grieving 31 year-old who had lost both his mother and brother.
Some died in doorways or in tents pitched in the snow. Others died in shelters or passed away in hospitals after living on the streets. Many were rough sleepers, others were statutory homeless and staying in temporary accommodation.
The Bureau found that at least 59 men and 16 women, died while homeless since 1 October 2017 to date, in three cases the gender is not known due to lack of public information. The ages of those in our database so far, range from 19 to 68 years old. Fourteen deaths were of people 35 years-old or under.
The project has been welcomed by those working in the sector.
Petra Salva, St Mungo’s Director of Rough Sleeper Services said: “It’s a scandal that people are dying on our streets.
“St Mungo’s would welcome more nationally collated, robust statistics around rough sleeper deaths.”
Thames Reach Chief Executive Jeremy Swain said: “It is extraordinary and unacceptable that nationally data on rough sleepers is so limited." He added that a national database would "be of enormous practical value.”
Hamid’s car now sits unclaimed, on a quiet side road behind the car park of a huge Tesco shopping complex in Harlow, Essex. Four weeks on from his death and, instead of snow, the windscreen is covered with floral tributes. There are eleven bunches of flowers in all, most now withered and brown.
“They all appeared over the past couple of weeks”, said Adam Protheroe. A local businessman, Adam had met Hamid the year before and had come to know him well. “I’m back and forth from Tescos all the time getting stuff for the wife and kids. I just came across him, said hello, he was a friendly enough guy”, he explained.
Hamid told Adam he had studied aeronautical engineering in Bristol. His Facebook page registers a stint working in Avionics for British Airways.
Once, he even applied for a graduate research position with Professor Stephen Hawking’s office at the University of Cambridge. The Bureau saw paperwork confirming his application. Hamid told Adam and others he made it down to the last three applicants.
But then, things started to go wrong.
“Someone conned him out of money and he ended up selling his pension to shark companies, that is what he called them”, Adam explained. “Losing that money was the start of the alcoholism I think, it alleviated the stress.”
Iranian-born, Hamid was also reportedly suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), from his time fighting for the army in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
People that knew Hamid years before told Channel 4 News he was not the easiest man to live with. He struggled with alcoholism for years and had to be removed from several properties. But many people in Harlow told the Bureau of their affection for him.
Chrissy Sorce works in a car rental hut, just five metres from Hamid’s makeshift-home. Her cigarette breaks would often bring her face to face with the homeless man. “At first I thought that’s a bit weird living there. He first arrived in the summer, and so I just started saying hello”, she explained. Soon she was charging his phone for him or making him tea.
She told the Bureau that after gathering many books on advanced mathematics and engineering he had to enlist the help of a friend, who stored them in her daughter’s garden shed because they could no longer fit in his car.
“You know he’s a person like anyone else. Everyone’s vulnerable aren’t they”, she said. “He was a very intelligent man, he had all engineering books, maths books you know. He was just left here, I thought that was really wrong.”
The number of people sleeping rough has risen sharply across the UK, increasing 169% in England since 2010, according to the government’s latest rough sleeper count. Experts warn cuts to mental health and substance abuse provision, coupled with rising private rents and a lack of social housing, are now forcing increasing numbers into homelessness.
However, there is no central database logging deaths of those who die when homeless. There no obligation on councils or coroners to log the deaths. Not all deaths make the news.
But that does not mean they go unnoticed. The Bureau found that for those working in the sector, news of premature deaths can be hard to shake.
Wayne Hood, from the charity Streets2Homes, knows two other people who died in Harlow this winter. The families do not want the names shared.
Hood knows only too well the dangers of sleeping rough. Now a paid outreach worker, he first arrived at the Streets2Homes shelter when he became homeless in 2015.
These days he splits his time between helping those who arrive at the day centre, tucked away in a small industrial estate on the edge of the town, and the time he is out walking the streets, looking for those that need help.
“I have these flyers printed”, Hood explained, pulling a handful of A4 sheets out of his rucksack. In big, bold letters they read: “Homeless you are not alone.” In the corner of a storeroom are bulging plastic bags tied tightly at the top, full of toiletries, bottles of water and other essentials, these are the packs Hood hands out on his round.
“Street homeless is becoming very visible here now. It has definitely increased”, he said. “We have 28 registered rough sleepers that we know of here in Harlow. It is probably more like double that in reality”, he added.
People bed down where they can. In a small square of grass outside the local St Paul’s church, eight tents huddle in varying states of disarray.
“When the weather was bad in March, we went out to places we thought people might be. A couple of occasions we opened up the centre here too, on Friday and Saturday night when it was really cold. It was a case of people bedding down here on the day room floor”, Hood explained.
At the same time, 70 miles away, Robert Wallis was settling in on the floor of an emergency shelter too.
Six days before Hamid Farahi died, as 'the beast from the East' cold snap pummelled the UK, Eileen Wallis, a homeless woman, woke up on the floor of the Catching Lives drop-in centre and found her 41 year-old son Robert, who was also homeless, dead beside her.
Eileen told journalist Gerry Warren of KentOnline: “I woke up and reached out for his hand but it felt really cold. I realised he was dead but tried to revive him.
“I knew he was ill, but this came completely out of the blue and I am devastated. I have no idea what my future holds now.”
The centre, a squat rectangular building housed just metres from Canterbury East station, had been turned into an emergency shelter as the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol, a statutory requirement on councils to house homeless people in severe weather, prompted charities within the sector to open their doors.
“When the temperature is forecast zero [degrees Celsius] or less for three nights or severe wind, rain or snow, the council contact us and we open our day centre”, explained Graeme Solly, a Project Leader with Catching Lives day centre. “We had 47 nights of that this winter.”
The tables which usually line the hall were pushed to the side, the snooker and ping-pong tables moved back to make room for 15 people bedding down on mats on the floor. The centre was at capacity most nights.
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"We are seeing a large number of rough sleepers, sofa surfers, and people who are vulnerably housed coming to our centre to seek advice", said Solly. Footfall at the Catching Lives day centre doubled between 2013 to 2015 and has remained around this mark since, he added.
Official figures show that, across the South of England, the numbers of rough sleepers has increased by 194% since 2010, higher even than the national average, 169%.
Cuts to council budgets have had an impact on the care homeless people can access, said Solly.
With fewer options for referral to other services, staff at Catching Lives are left trying to support people as best they can.
Staff in the centre are still shaken by Robert Wallis’ death. Responding at the time, the centre’s general manager, Terry Gore, told Kent Online: “Every year we lose a number of clients, but we’ve never had anyone die inside the building before. It’s very sad for our staff, clients and volunteers.”
But Robert was not the only person to die while homeless in Canterbury this year. Less than three weeks later the city saw another death.
Out on the streets of Canterbury, Sonya Langridge walks with a purpose, her years working for the navy evident in her powerful stride and eagerness to keep time.
“It was incredibly difficult this winter”, she told the Bureau. “I normally go out to start my round around 6am but there were some nights I’d find myself lying awake worrying about people, so I’d just get up earlier and check they were okay.”
Sonya is an outreach worker with Porchlight, a homelessness charity which works across the entirety of Kent. “People will sleep anywhere that is safe, if they are sleeping in the town centre it is for safety reasons, where they know cameras are, they know they have someone watching over them, or equally you get the people that go out in the woods by the rivers, tuck themselves away there where they feel they are not on show, they feel safe when no one knows where they are- those are the worrying ones, those are the ones we want to keep our eye on for their own safety.”
One of the people on Sonya’s watch was Shelly Pollard, a 42 year-old woman who was well-known around the city.
Many nights Shelly would bed down in the dimly lit doorway of a record music shop, the grand city walls visible from where she sat. Women make up around 22% of rough sleepers in Canterbury, according to Porchlight, higher than the national average of 14%. Sleeping where there is light and CCTV can provide some form of security.
“She was here every morning. She was always just here in the corner in the sleeping bag, maybe with some cardboard, sometimes spare clothes, you’d just hear snoring,” shop worker Alex Furness told the Bureau. “You couldn’t really believe she’d died until you heard it from a couple of people.”
A short distance down the road, watched over by a bronze statue of poet Geoffrey Chaucer, candles and flowers lay in tribute to Shelly. By the time of publication, a GoFundMe page trying to raise money for her funeral had raised £1,360 of its £4,000 goal.
Sonya is still shaken by Shelly’s death. But there is no time for her to stop. She covers a huge patch and spends her days scouring the streets and woods around the city, checking in with those that are rough sleeping.
“Sonya is fantastic, she can get people to talk to her who would never open up to anyone else”, said Mike Barrett, Chief Executive of Porchlight. “She was keeping almost a daily watch on Shelly. Sadly now Shelly has passed away.
“Her death is an example of the end of a process that is not fit for purpose, which is destructive and immoral.”
Barrett can reel off a long list of things he thinks are causing the increase in homelessness in the area and across the country: cuts to mental health services, lack of regulations around private landlords, landlords refusing to take those on Universal Credit.
Those issues, he says, are compounded by funding cuts to homelessness services.
“The cuts have impacted to a point where some services have closed. Others are so diluted they can’t do what they were set up to do”, said Barrett.
“Years ago Porchlight had 28 outreach workers. In 2011 our budgets were cut by 75% and we ended up with a team of four [outreach workers]. So the charity, our board decided to pump some of our own reserves into it and we’re still doing that. But we’ve only got a team of eleven”, said Barrett. “The whole funding environment has returned to what it was in the 80s”, he added.
The Homeless Reduction Act, which was brought in earlier this month, puts more responsibility on councils to prevent homelessness and provides some additional funds. But many in the sector told the Bureau they are worried it is not enough to counter the cuts that have already happened.
A recent survey of local authorities, by the homeless charity Crisis, found that 74% warned that a roll-out of Universal Credit would significantly increase homelessness in their area. Nearly half also feared the lowering of the total benefit cap would significantly increase homelessness.
Hamid, Shelly and Robert died within weeks of each other. At least seven more people died while homeless in March too, according to the names compiled by the Bureau. The true figure is likely to be much higher.
John Healey, Labour’s Shadow Housing Secretary, said: “These shocking statistics should shame us all.
"The reality is that the national scandal of rising homelessness is the direct result of decisions made over recent years: cuts to council services and housing benefit, a lack of action to help private renters and a sharp fall in the number of genuinely affordable homes."
Matt Downie, Director of Policy and External Affairs at Crisis, said: “The Bureau’s figures are a devastating reminder that rough sleeping is beyond dangerous – it’s deadly, and it’s claiming more and more lives each year."
Prime minister Theresa May has pledged to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it totally by 2027.
Responding to the Bureau’s findings, a government spokesperson said: “Every death of someone sleeping rough on our streets is one too many. We are taking bold action and have committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it by 2027.
“We are investing £1.2bn to tackle all forms of homelessness and earlier this month the Homeless Reduction Act, the most ambitious legislation in this area in decades, came into force."
Hamid’s death is still being investigated by the coroner’s office. Around a week after he passed away his hero Stephen Hawking died. Hawking was buried with ceremony 17 days later, on 31 March. Hamid is yet to be buried.
His car sits, stuffed with his belongings, the only remaining marker of his life.
“He’s missed” said Chrissy, looking on at the makeshift home. “He was just left here so long that he couldn’t get out again. It was sad. But I think, in some ways, now he’s out of his misery.”
This piece was possible because of great original local reporting by Adam Spartley at Your Harlow and Gerry Warren and Jodie Nesling at KentOnline.
Header photo of flowers left at the vigil commemorating Shelly Pollard in Canterbury via Maeve McClenaghan/TBIJ