I went to a memorial service for someone I didn’t know. It was at All Saints in the centre of Northampton on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
The restoration grandeur of Northampton’s centrepiece church is a sumptuous setting for anything. It was Charles II gift to Northampton after our own ‘great fire’ laid waste to the largely wooden town centre.
The same king who had Northampton’s castle and town walls slighted (deliberately ruined) for supporting Cromwell’s army against his father also oversaw the creation of a church at the town’s heart that would not have looked out of place in any of the great Catholic kingdoms of the day.
So much for our curmudgeonly and down to earth support for the upstart Puritan army. God’s new town centre house in Northampton ever since has had a louvred belltower, a pillared portico and fabulous plaster relief work. That’s Royalty for you – always playing the long game.
It’s a stunning building – a kind of local hero challenging the idea that the only way to measure the worth of your town centre spaces is footfall. It’s where the Remembrance Service is held. It’s where Songs of Praise was filmed. It’s the roll out the red carpet church but it is also the church where the rough sleepers came in from the outside to pay their respects to Kristians Olstein.
I didn’t know him but I knew of him. He was a young homeless man who had died from health complications brought on by his life rough sleeping.
His friends from the street – more people that we know but don’t know – gathered alongside mourners from the churches, charities and also the Roman Catholic priests who had ministered last rites in hospital.
The most heartbreaking aspect of his story among many, is that he came to the UK with a guitar and a starry eyed dream to make a career in music. He was a teenager from Lithuania but he found himself a job and a flat. Things started out okay but they took a turn for the worse when he lost them both. Rather than asking for help he lived on the street.
You might have seen him in the door of the Nationwide sleeping on the giant teddy bear he used as a bed.
Kristians accumulated a range of health problems living rough and picked up addictions. He was admitted to hospital in pain this year. There was a blood clot. He had simply not been strong enough to cope with the physical stresses of being homeless. His charming reticence and desire not to be a burden was perhaps partly his undoing.
In the memorial service the tributes began with one from middle-aged Jeff with rosy cheeks who met Kristians on Wellingborough Road.
“He never asked for anything,” said Jeff, who would always remember his smile. Words that were repeated by others.
There were homeless people attending the service, dotted around the pews, some awkwardly taking their turn at the front to deliver their own brief eulogies, speaking of Kristians being at peace now.
The dangers of life on the street are not as straightforward as you may think. Your priority might be escaping the cold or the random violence of pub goers who just think its funny to do what they want to you and film it on their phones. By comparison addicts and sexual predators seem like a reasonable risk to take for some kind of comfort but they all take a toll on your life expectancy. The thing that finally gets you might be the only succour your best friend could offer – a drink, a fix, an infection.
This is how life at the very bottom has always been. The recent political fashion for hostile environments and being tough on so-called spongers has not made that much difference because you cannot value someone less if you were already treating them as worthless.
The rhetoric around welfare budget cuts is more to do with society absolving itself of responsibility for the helpless and the hopeless. They never got that much from us anyway, not in comparison to the salaries of consultants or the cost of chaotic political fantasies like Brexit.
Stan Robertson is Northampton’s Street Chaplain and the Project Co-ordinator for 16.15, which provides breakfast in bed for the homeless and whatever else they need.
I spoke to him after the service about Kristians.
“He touched a lot of lives. He had been on our streets since the age of 19. For four years he was out here and in that time he met all these different people from different areas and he did touch a lot of lives.
“This is a rare occasion when people from so many different areas, so many different street services have come together under one roof. It is a shame that it has to be something like this that brings people together. It is a shame with the tragedy that happened to Kristians but hopefully we have got a foundation to build on with people coming together.
“When Kristians came here at 19 he didn’t have any addictions. He was just a young man from Lithuania. He had a job, he had a flat, he had a girlfriend. He was just a young man with dreams. Life took a turn for him. He lost his documents. He lost his flat. He lost his job and he ended up on the streets. The effect of that led to the life of addiction and poverty you have out here, which led to the blood clots which formed which eventually led to the condition that killed him.
“I’ve permanently got etched in my mind the picture I have of him sleeping in the doorway with the big teddy bear as his pillow, cuddled up to him, which showed the youngness of him. You think about that, you can’t help but smile but feel sad at the same time that it has to be the way it is. He did that with people. He would sit just over there outside the Nationwide, people would just come by and chat to him and would always smile at him.
“One of the last times I saw him out here before he went into hospital he was in immense pain. I called an ambulance for him because he was just struggling with his afflictions but he was still smiling. He was saying ‘it’s ok I’ll be out for breakfast’. You can’t help but smile at that. It was one of those things that is infectious.”
However much talk of austerity we hear, Britain is still one of the richest and cleverest countries in the world. It is shocking to discover that there have been four deaths associated with homelessness since Christmas in Northampton alone.
Stan said: “Since January 1 this year we have had Jerica who was 38 and was found frozen and dead in a bin cupboard up in St James on New Year’s Day. There was a guy called Sean who hadn’t been homeless for about nine years but was still linked to temporary accommodation and homelessness and he died of a heart attack at a young age. There was guy called Chris who was found in Bedford Mansions, a homeless guy from out of town but he was still over here at the time living on our streets and he was found dead from a drug overdose. Technically there have been five because we also had a young lady living on the streets who lost her baby she was carrying.
“I think we live in times where we as a society have lost the value of humanity. If we could grasp that value and believe what we are worth as human beings, as people, then we would see the value and worth in others. That is what will change this nation, that is what will change this world.
“As long as we go around with this concept of lives without value, the guys on the street their value is their next fix, their value is their next meal, their value is what other people say that they are and speak over them and tell them that they are worthless, that they are useless, that they are never going to amount to nothing, that they are dirty and they are druggies and they are all these things that they throw at them, and that is the value that they carry of themselves. They don’t understand their value as a person.
“And then other people their value is in their car, their bank balance and their job but their value of themselves doesn’t exist and it is about understanding that each and every one of us is equally valued and equally of worth, and when we grasp that and it becomes a revelation that sinks in to us that’s what changes things. That’s what’s missing. It’s not so much hard times or the substances people take, it’s value, we have no value.”
When faced with a challenge like this some people step up and some turn away. The response to homelessness needs to be organised and co-ordinated to be effective.
I asked Stan what people should do if they want to help.
“Don’t do it alone, quite often at Christmas and times when it becomes fashionable to get involved with homelessness and poverty you get a lot of people who say I’m going to go out and feed the homeless. If you want to get involved in poverty of any kind whatsoever you have to remember than poverty is not a fashion statement, it is not the social media equivalent to a poodle in a handbag, it’s not what makes you look good.
“Get in touch with somebody that is already doing, get in touch with the Hope Centre and ask what you can do to help, get in touch with ourselves at project 16:15, get in touch with 100 Ladles who go out every Saturday night, get in touch with Street Angels who go out every Sunday night. You have got Ursula and the Angels who go out three nights a week and deal with more than just homelessness they deal with other areas of poverty too, so first thing is get in touch with someone is already doing so you can be covered by their safeguarding and their knowledge of the streets.”
There have been attempts to stop people giving money to beggars because it enables their addictions and encourages them to beg.
“In regards to money, I don’t have an answer to money, I don’t give money,” said Stan.
“The only instance I would ever use money is if I was putting someone in a room for a night or there was an immediate need on the street I could purchase for somebody. It’s your personal choice. Yes if you give somebody money they might buy drink, or substances and once you give them that money that’s their choice. It’s like it’s my choice to go home tonight and crack open a can of beer. Someone might want to go and open a packet of fags. Addiction is addiction regardless of the substance. If you give money its that person’s choice what they spend it on so don’t give and complain about it . To give food, there is the thing about killing with kindness. There is not enough accountability and coordination with people just giving stuff out. Ask them what they need. Give them some comfort or kindness or buy them a couple of tea, they haven’t got a fridge to store the food, they can’t keep the drinks warm.
“Ask them but above all recognise that that person is not just a blanket, it’s a person, they have a life, they have feelings. They didn’t come into this world with the ambition to be homeless, they had dreams and visions, they have got mothers and fathers, people that care about them and miss them. So give them the time of day, give them a smile, say hello, ask them if they’re ok, ask them if need anything, ask them if you can call somebody for them. There is so much you can do but don’t look down on them, don’t drag your children away from them like they are carrying some nasty disease, don’t despise them because any one of us could be that person, anytime.”
It was an incredibly touching service with songs from Earths Lonely Angels, Father Oliver and Father Artur from the Roman Catholic Cathedral and many people from the support agencies that work on the streets paying their respects to Kristians.
His death occured because somehow we have allowed poverty to become lethal in this wealthy, advanced country. By any sane measure of societal progress we should be very worried about that.