The Story of One of the Hundreds of Homeless Deaths in the UK

In the last 18 months, 796 people have died homeless in the UK; Kristain Olsteins was one of them.

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14 March 2019, 9:00am

Rough sleeping in a Birmingham subway, England, UK. Photo: Paul Weston / Alamy Stock Photo

Kristain Olsteins left Lithuania at 19 with dreams of becoming a musician. After heading first to Ireland, where he had relatives, he soon moved on to England with the intention of staying with his sister in Northampton. But things quickly went wrong.

Within days of arriving in the Midlands town, he lost his passport and with it the job he'd lined up. Not long after, his sister moved away and Kristian found himself homeless.

"The first time I met him he was sleeping in a shop doorway without any blankets, or even a coat," says Jeff Collinson, a friend of Kristian's. "I went home, picked up a jacket and took it to him."

That was three years ago, when Kristian first started sleeping rough, but the two stayed in touch and Jeff helped him when he could. He says they had a weird connection and would spend a lot of time just talking.

"He'd tell me about his childhood back home," says Collinson. "He lived with his grandparents but was one of seven children. He used to go out stealing strawberries and told me he was once chased by a man on a motorbike; he just dropped the fruit and ran. We'd laugh and cry together."

Despite living on the streets, Kristian was rarely seen without his guitar. He believed that if he could just get his new passport sorted he'd still have a chance of pursuing a career in music. But a fear of deportation prevented him from accessing the support that could have helped.

"He believed that if he came into contact with anybody official he would be returned to Lithuania," says Stan Robertson, the founder of Project 16:15, a Northampton-based group that provides support to local rough sleepers.

This fear meant he spent the whole of last winter sleeping on the streets. He even refused to enter the emergency cold weather shelter that opens when temperatures drop below zero.

"He wouldn't go in," says Robertson. "He'd been led to believe that he would be deported; his fear of being thrown out of the country was so great that he just wouldn't go in."

Hayley (not her real name) has slept rough in Northampton for just over a year. When she met Kristian he was sleeping in a garden shed. She says he would let her stay there with him and would often share his sleeping bag with her when the two later slept in the town centre together. On one occasion a passerby paid for them to sleep at a local Travelodge for the night.

"He filled the room with all these snacks for us, and then just walked up to me and Kristian and gave us the key," Hayley says. "He'd paid for breakfast in the morning and everything. It was brilliant. We felt like a king and queen."

But the longer Kristian slept outside, the worse his health became. He started using heroin, developed blood clots and had gangrene in his toes that was so bad doctors thought he would need to have them amputated. Then a scan revealed that he needed heart surgery. Collinson regularly visited him while he recovered in hospital after the operation.

"He seemed to be getting better, and I told him that he could stay with me for a while when he got out," says Collinson. "I'd ring him every day at 11AM, just to check how he was and let him know what time I'd be visiting. Then, one morning, I don't why, I called him a little earlier and there was no answer. I thought he was maybe with the doctor so couldn't talk, but a few minutes later a nurse called me and said he'd passed away."

Kristian was just 22. He is one of 796 people who have died homeless in the UK in the last 18 months, according to new data released by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – the first such statistical data of its kind in the UK. Like Kristian, around 27 percent were under 40 when they died (where an age could be recorded).

Research by University College London has also revealed that hundreds of homeless people are dying from preventable or treatable conditions. Academics looked at the medical records of 600 people who died while homeless in England between 2013 and 2017. They found that a fifth of the deaths were cancer-related and another fifth were from digestive issues such as intestinal obstruction or pancreatitis.

On Friday, campaigners will hold a vigil outside Downing Street to remember those who have died homeless. Similar events are being held in other parts of the country, including in Northampton, just yards from the spot where Kristian would often bed down. There will also be a memorial service for him at the end of the month.

Communities Secretary James Brokenshire said: "No one is meant to spend their lives on the streets, or without a home to call their own. Every death on our streets is too many and it is simply unacceptable to see lives cut short this way. That's why we are investing £1.2 billion to tackle homelessness, and have bold plans backed by £100 million to end rough sleeping in its entirety. Councils have used this funding to create an additional 1,750 beds and 50 rough sleeping support staff – and figures published last month show this investment is already starting to have an effect.

"I am also committed to ensuring independent reviews into the deaths of rough sleepers are conducted, where appropriate – and I will be holding local authorities to account in doing just that. And to stop people from becoming homeless in the first place, we’ve changed the law to require councils to provide early support for those at risk of being left with nowhere left to go; are boosting access to affordable housing; and making renting more secure."

"To me, there can be no justification from any government source for why people are being allowed to die on the streets," says Robertson. "It shouldn't be happening. You can't justify it. You can't excuse it."