24/03/2018 07:11 GMT | Updated 07/01/2020 15:13 GMT

Isolation And Missed Chances To Grieve: What Happens When A Rough Sleeper Dies

'He was buried without anybody. We were his family. I was so shocked… There was nothing we could do.'

PA Archive/PA Images
A rough sleeper in Farringdon, London 

Richard died in his 70s. He lived in South London, and he was homeless.

He had no surviving family but he did have a thriving network of friends through Spires, a charity that helps homeless and disadvantaged people.

But something went wrong, and when he died six years ago, no one attended his funeral.

Pamela Mhlophe, a women’s service manager with Spires, was tasked with identifying Richard’s body. She had promised to provide him with a loving send off.

“The Coroner said there was a long queue of bodies ahead of Richard and something happened because while the funeral was processed with Lambeth Council. Our details were not passed on and by the time I got through to them, he had been buried,” she said.

“They had not been in touch with us and I was told this was because we were not family. Eventually I spoke to the person who arranged the funeral. I told him: ‘His family were Spires!’”

The man who arranged the funeral told her he was sorry and had been told only that Richard had no family.

“He was buried without anybody. We were his family. I was so shocked… There was nothing we could do.”

Mhlophe thinks that Richard was buried or cremated in Norwood Cemetery, but she can’t be sure. “The data protection act kicked in and so I don’t really know what happened to Richard.”

“It really upset us because he had formed a lot of friends here. I had to tell his friends at Spires that unfortunately Richard had already been buried and that we hadn’t been informed.”

When someone who is homeless dies, there are no horse-drawn carriages – and in most cases, there will be no grave marker. 

If no living kin is found, it falls to the local authority to pay for and arrange a burial or cremation, in what is called a public health funeral – or a so-called pauper’s funeral. Burials usually see the deceased placed in a communal grave of up to three bodies. If there are no mourners at a service, attendance will be limited to a funeral director, minister and pall bearers.

PA Wire/PA Images
Flowers and cards from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and staff, left at Westminster Underground station close to the entrance to Parliament where the man died 

After a homeless man from Portugal died outside Parliament in February, national attention turned to what happens when someone passes away while sleeping rough.

If, as in that case, a person is a foreign national, efforts will be made to repatriate their remains. But the process isn’t always clear: HuffPost UK has contacted the Portuguese embassy to ask if the man’s body has been repatriated, but received no response.

Westminster, where the man died near Parliament, had the highest rate of rough sleeping in the country in the latest figures for Autumn 2017, at 217 people.

A spokesman said the council has dealt with around 100 public health funerals in the past three years and that in around two thirds of cases a friend, relative, health professional or support worker has been located and invited to attend.

Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government
Rough sleeping statistics for Autumn 2017 

Policies vary between councils, but in Westminster, if the deceased person has insufficient assets to pay for a funeral, a “contractual funeral” is held at a cost of around £499. In most cases, the individual’s remains will be cremated unless there is a will, last wishes or religious requirement that states otherwise.

A minister presides over the service – which will reflect the deceased person’s beliefs if they are known – and it generally takes place early in the day when there is less demand on the crematorium, the council said.

In the neighbouring borough of Camden, which had the third highest rate of rough sleeping in England in 2017, the council funded 25 public health funerals last year, at a cost of close to £25,000.

Unlike the miscommunication in Richard’s case, sometimes no-one attends a homeless person’s funeral because there is simply no one to come.

Often, homeless people have lost the networks they had before, Mark Brennan, shelter projects coordinator at Christian campaigning group on homelessness Housing Justice explains.

“When people arrive at rough sleeping, if you look at their background stories, you are going to see a litany of broken relationships. In a lot of cases people self-isolate and ostracise themselves.

“That’s all part of what’s brought them to rough sleeping and an absolute collapse of their support network. In a significant number of cases, as far as they’re concerned, they don’t have any living relatives, even if they do.”

Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government

Sometimes people drift away from their families, meaning it is difficult for authorities to trace relatives.

Martin Burrows, director of research and campaigns at homelessness charity Groundswell said: “We had a case quite recently where we got called up by a lady in the Midlands. We’d done some work contributing to The Pavement (a magazine for homeless people). In there each year they list the names of people who have passed away on the street and sadly she’d seen her brother’s name in the online listing.

“When he died they hadn’t been in contact for ten years and she ended up getting in touch with us to find out what had happened to him.

“It seems like no attempts were made by the authorities to contact her family. She’s still not been able to find out where he was buried. There’s a real gap in information when this happens.”

But Mhlophe, from Spires, believes this information gap can be easily overcome. She recalls one man rough sleeping in London, who died on a bus.

Speaking with social services, Mhlophe learned there had been unsuccessful efforts to repatriate his body to his native Czech Republic, so she became involved in organising his funeral.

Although he died in a different part of the city from where he was sleeping, there was easy communication between the boroughs and Mhlope was able to contact his friends who were also service users of the charity.

She said: “Even though he had been sleeping rough in Lambeth, because he died there, it was taken on by West London social services. I phoned the hospital first and they sent me to the coroner who then put me in touch with the social worker. It was straightforward.

“We kept in touch and eventually she said, ’Right, we have a date. This is the day and the time and if you are not there, the funeral is going to happen without you. And that was it.”

The burial was attended by a large crowd of staff from Spires and the man’s friends, who together made the journey from south to West London.

“We should support people with dignity in death,” Mhlophe said. “What happens is we are so busy with life we kind of forget that it ends, and when it does, it hits us in a lot of ways.”

Burrows, who has worked for 13 years in the homelessness sector, has attended some funerals for rough sleepers.

“I go to these funerals because I’ve gotten to know somebody. It’s a sign of respect, it’s exactly what the shelter is all about. It’s about relating with the person. It’s about who they are other than their problems.”

If friends and those who knew the person but weren’t family are denied the chance to attend, it can be devastating, he said. “What’s really missing is the opportunity for people to remember people’s lives. Death has a knock-on effect on all of the people surrounding the person who has passed away and it often feels like that opportunity to grieve is taken away from people.”

“The real issue is that if someone dies and the council takes over, it’s often difficult for people who knew that person to find out what’s happened,” said Rev Richard Carter, who officiates at services for homeless people.

“This is especially true of people who have come from overseas. One of the great sadnesses is that many of those who die homeless are from other parts of the world. Who contacts their families? Who gives them a chance to grieve?”

Carl Court via Getty Images
St Martin-in-the-Fields holds an annual service to remember those who have died homeless in London over the last year 

Reverend Carter leads a service of commemoration every year in November at St Martin-in-the-Fields church for those who have died homeless in London during the last year. The event, in collaboration with Housing Justice, is open to everyone and sees the names of the homeless and destitute read out. Tributes are paid to them.

Quite often, it is an chance to remember the dead where there has been no opportunity to attend a funeral and the names of those who have passed are largely collated through a grapevine network.

Carter said: “It’s a chance to honour people and their lives and to remember them. When you hear the names read out, you realise each person must have been named by their parents, each person must have had hopes and dreams.

“Many of those names obviously carry huge stories, people who have come from other countries, people who have searched for hope and for work in this country, so it is a chance to remember them with some dignity.”

As well as the annual service, which pays tribute to up to 150 individuals and has been going on for more than 20 years, the church holds smaller services where members of the homeless community and workers in the sector gather together to mourn their loss.

“So often we judge a person by their categories,” said Carter. “We think they were just a homeless person who died but actually they have had lived incredibly complex and often extraordinary lives and when you begin to discover the story of their lives, you begin to discover people who have got just as much dignity and humanity as all of us.”

Streetlink- If you are concerned about someone sleeping rough in England or Wales you can use this website to send an alert. The details you provide are sent to the local authority or outreach service for the area in which you have seen the person, to help find the individual and connect them to support. 

Spires - Offering rough sleepers space, open access drop-ins and women’s space for homeless and disadvantaged people in Lambeth. Call 020 8696 0943 for more information. 

Groundswell - Enabling homeless people to take more control of their lives and become empowered. Services include health and advocacy and coaching. Call 03000 039 600.  

Housing Justice- The Church’s voice on housing and homelessness. Offers night shelters, mentoring and befriending. Call 020 3544 8094 for more information. 

The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields - Providing immediate relief from homelessness and long-term support leading to housing, work and independence. Call 020 7766 5544