A SYMBOLIC vigil to highlight the tragedy of homeless people's deaths ended today with a street funeral for Michael Gething.
Former rough sleeper and Big Issue seller Graham Walker this week slept rough for two nights in Totnes in memory of 42-year-old Michael, who died in a church porch in the town centre on the first freezing night of the year.
Members of the public volunteered to carry his coffin through the town from the Royal Seven Stars to the cemetery at Follaton.
Graham said: "The funeral directors offered us a hearse free because it's a long way and Michael was a big lad, but we've had no shortage of volunteers and it will be symbolic because Michael lived and died on the streets and so he should have a street funeral."
The vigil also raised awareness of the issues of homelessness in the town, where there is thought to be a community of about 17 people who intermittently sleep out.
Members of the public gave donations to pay for Michael's street funeral, to fund the town's soup kitchen and to buy £5 orange plastic survival bags to keep rough sleepers dry in wet weather.
As temperatures fell to freezing on the first night of the sleep-out Graham said: "I know four of the homeless community from Totnes who have died since last Christmas — not all died on the streets: one hung himself at Paignton and another died sleeping in a van."
A meeting about the recent deaths of homeless people was held this week at South Hams Council with representatives of the Shekinah Mission, Pastor Mark Hatch of Revival Life Ministries, Totnes Town councillor Alan Gorman and MP Sarah Wollaston.
Graham said: "In a way, Michael is paying for his own funeral by proxy, and at the same time he is helping to raise funds for the soup kitchen and to buy these orange plastic survival bags.
"If he had had one he would be here now, because it would have kept him dry.
"He died because of the wet and the bag would have kept him dry.
"When he was found dead outside the church he still had his Sony Walkman on, but his sleeping bag and clothes were sodden.
"He had been offered hostel accommodation in Dartmouth, but he wanted to stay here. He liked it in Totnes.
"The problem is councils and churches have their own ideas about where homeless people should sleep, but the homeless community is just as diverse as the regular community.
"Some are happy to go into a hostel, but some cannot cope with the intricacies of full-on accommodation. It's a case of making their lives as comfortable as possible.
"Michael had been on the streets most of his adult life.
"He would have walked into a night shelter if there was one that night, had a bowl of soup and left at seven o'clock in the morning after a cup of coffee."
Graham, who had slept on the streets for three years, said: "It's taken me about 15 years to fully adjust to living indoors. When I first met my lady I used to sleep in a tent in the garden.
"I'm not worried about a two-night sleep out. One lady offered to bring me hot water bottles."
A spokesman for South Hams District Council said:”We are saddened by the death of Michael Gething and our thoughts are with his family and friends.
Mr Gething was offered advice, assistance and accommodation by us on several occasions.
"Unfortunately, accommodation is not always available in Totnes and sometimes it may be offered in nearby towns. A place was offered to Mr Gething in a supported accommodation unit in Dartmouth, known as St Barnabas, but he did not take up the place. He was also offered help with getting together a deposit and rent for private accommodation but did not take up this offer.
"In the event of severe weather, we have an emergency protocol in place which seeks to ensure that people living on the streets are offered help and accommodation.
"The Council is also committed to the Government’s ‘No Second Night Out’ Policy. This means that when the council is made aware of someone sleeping rough we work with our partners to contact them and help them to explore the options for alternative accommodation and support.
"We would urge members of the public who know of someone rough sleeping in the South Hams to call our hotline on 0800 151 3441. This is part of a rough sleeping partner initiative across Devon and Cornwall.
"There is currently no homeless shelter or hostel in the South Hams but we do have supported accommodation places for single homeless people. Accommodation is also provided in B&Bs, flats and bedsits.
There is a Drop In Centre for homeless people in Totnes, which has been given a temporary home by the council, rent-free, in one of our vacant units on the Burke Road Industrial Estate.
"We are currently in talks with community partners about finding a permanent home for the Drop In Centre and exploring other options for the Totnes area.
We estimate there are likely to be approximately seven people sleeping rough in the whole of the South Hams on any one night.
"There are currently 15 households classed as statutorily homeless in the South Hams and they are all currently in temporary accommodation.
Michael Gething is the only homeless person who we know to have died on the streets in the South Hams this year."