Cause of Death – Invisibility

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Image: Garry Knight (shared under Creative Commons License)

This January, my world was touched in some way by the deaths of three people: David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Danny Hackett.

Bowie and Rickman, died of Cancer. Danny Hackett died because he was living on the streets.

With social media being such a huge part of the way our generation express themselves, it comes as no surprise that people everywhere were taking to Facebook to express how sad they were about the death of Bowie and Rickman. That is, in fact, how I found out that they were dead. 

Facebook allowed me to see how many people claimed to feel a genuine connection with the stars. Of course, in many cases I doubted the sincerity of this claim. But, to be honest, that’s a whole other article, and it’s already been written.

David_Bowie_Young_Americans_Tour_1974_LeftNo matter what my feelings on the general mania surrounding the event, there were people who instantly came to mind when I heard about Bowie and Rickman. People who I remember openly expressing their love and admiration of their work. People who were emotionally invested in them. It didn’t surprise me when I saw them expressing genuine grief online.

And this is where the concept of grief becomes interesting. You don’t have to be personally close to someone in order to grieve them when they die. The fact is, none of us knew Bowie or Rickman closely. The connection people experience is not the kind of connection you have with family or friends. The connection isn’t with Bowie the man, but the narrative of Bowie. It’s with his music, his image, his public persona. Everything we knew about him, from the professional to the personal, was all a part of his narrative. And people fell in love with that narrative. Same goes for Rickman. And so, when those narratives came to a close, people grieved.

My experience wasn’t grief. I felt some sadness: sadness at the fact that two prominent people of our culture are gone, they won’t be making any more art, and the whole thing reminds us of our own mortality. It was there, but it was fleeting, and nothing like real grief.

As much as I admired them, I wasn’t in love with the narrative of Bowie or Rickman.

I was in love with the narrative of Danny Hackett.

FB_IMG_1456055784165Danny Hackett was a young homeless man who lived on the streets in Birmingham. Just like Bowie and Rickman, I found out about his death through Facebook.

Danny was one of those homeless men who people knew. He was very chatty, friendly and charming. He had a way of making people see past the barrier society had placed between them. So that’s why his death, unlike the deaths of most other homeless people, managed to do the rounds on Facebook. Because unlike most other homeless people, there is a community of people who feel connected with Danny – a community of people who grieve him.

So on Monday the 25th of January, when I heard about Danny, it was my turn to grieve over the narrative of a man I didn’t really know.

The narrative:

I was standing outside the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham with my friends. We had just seen a show. Danny approaches and asks if we have any spare change. I give him what was then the standard amount I would give out: one pound. This is the point where most homeless people would walk away to find someone else to ask. But Danny instead started engaging us in conversation. He asked us what we were doing, and I told him that we had just seen a show. He talked about how he would love to be able to do something like that one day. I could see in the eyes of the people around me that they thought he was only talking to us because he thought he could get more money out of us. But to me, it just seemed like he wanted some company. So when he said ‘I’m sorry, you probably don’t want to talk to me’ I encouraged him to stay and chat if he wanted to. So he did.

Before we left him to catch our bus, I asked him how much he needed to stay at the shelter he had mentioned. He said he needed twelve, and he had six. So I gave him six more and told him to spend it on whatever he needed.

Then I went to the bus stop and cried.

Danny’s charm and charisma made me treat him better than I ever treated any other homeless person. And that forced me to think about my own behaviour. Homeless people shouldn’t have to charm me in order to gain my respect. My encounter with Danny showed me that homeless people are not only deprived of food and shelter, but of human company and conversation. Those things seemed more important to Danny than the money. He kept thanking us just for talking to him.

That encounter really changed the way I do things. Since that day it has been my mission to stop ignoring homeless people. If I see someone on the street, and there is some change in my pocket, then that change goes to them, whatever the amount. And if I don’t have anything, I try to at least make eye contact and say ‘I’m sorry I don’t have anything on me today.’ – To be honest, that’s the hardest part. But when someone once responded with ‘thank you for acknowledging me’ – I knew I was doing the right thing. It broke my heart, but it kept me motivated.

I don’t manage it every time. Sometimes I still walk by, sometimes I allow those deeply ingrained prejudices and fears that have manifested in me all my life to take over. Sometimes the little voice in me that tells me to look the other way wins. But then I think of Danny, and he pushes me to do better next time.

That is the connection I feel with Danny. That is why I grieved when he died. His circumstances meant that his death at his young age was pretty much an inevitability, and that made it feel all the more tragic.

But the fact remains, I didn’t really know Danny. That narrative that affected me so much – I have no way of knowing how much of it was real or not. Maybe he really was sticking around in the hopes of getting more money. Maybe his charm was a tactic. Maybe he didn’t spend it on the shelter like he said he would.

I don’t know what was true and what was not. Just like Bowie and Rickman fans don’t really know where the man ends and the brand begins. It doesn’t matter. No matter what was really going on behind Danny’s wide eyes that night, the effect they had on me was powerful and has changed my life for the better. The connection I felt, and the grief that followed, was real.

But that’s where the similarities between Danny Hackett and Bowie and Rickman end.

AlanRickmanDec2009When people grieved over Bowie and Rickman, the rest of the world indulged that grief. People who never owned a Bowie album still wanted to publicly display how sad they felt about his passing. The grieving process became a cake that everyone wanted a slice of. People didn’t need a genuine connection in order to join in. Everyone got it.

When Danny died, I really felt the only person I could talk to about it was my boyfriend, who talked to Danny with me that day. I felt like the only people who were going to ‘get it’ were the people who also felt that connection with him. I felt like while the rest of the world might sympathise with my grief, and perhaps even admire it, they weren’t going to join in.

“But Danny’s narrative didn’t touch everyone else’s world the way Rickman’s or Bowie’s did” I thought to myself.

Didn’t it? Danny’s narrative symbolises and speaks for every homeless person in this country. However they came to that position, they are cast off from society, deprived of food, shelter and human interaction, and are treated like they are invisible. This narrative is all around us.

David Bowie released 27 studio albums with 121 singles. Alan Rickman has 69 film credits.

An estimated 2744 people are sleeping rough in England tonight.

In London alone, 7581 people slept rough at least once between 2014 and 2015

Their names might not be in the headlines, but the homeless community is a bigger part of our society and culture than Bowie or Rickman ever were.

Danny’s narrative is everywhere. The problem is – we continue to ignore it.

Bowie’s death, in particular, has created a rise in donations to Cancer Research UK, with all the profits from his album sales during January going to the charity. It is not uncommon that when a person of high profile dies from cancer, charities like Cancer Research UK get more attention.

With two major cancer related charities in the top ten for charitable donations, Cancer Research UK at #3 and Macmillan Cancer Support at #8, and with Marie Curie Cancer Care following not too far behind at #24, it is clear to see that the care of cancer patients and the seek to find a cure is one of the UK’s top priorities. Between them, these charities receive over 576.5 million pounds in voluntary donations in the space of one year.

The leading UK charity for the homeless is Shelter, and it comes in at #72.

To put that into context, these are the rankings of some of the charities that beat it.

#12 RSPCA

#15 Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

#27 National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty  

#37 Dogs Trust

#40 The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden

#46 The Football Foundation (which funds the development of new and refurbished grassroots sports facilities)

#53 The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council

#66 The Royal Shakespeare Company

#68 Cats Protection

#71 Royal National Theatre

While many of the leading humanitarian UK charities which aim to reduce poverty, like Oxfam and the Salvation Army, include helping the homeless as a part of their mission, Shelter is the first one on the list which specifically targets homelessness. It is outranked by five animal charities and three high-profile theatres: theatres which have pretty high ticket prices. These numbers suggest that not only are the people of the UK are more concerned with sheltering animals than people, they are also more interested in funding theatres, museums and football fields.

There are also two more cancer research/aid charities that outrank Shelter, making it a total of five.

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The reason so many of these types of charities rank so high is obvious: Cancer is the second largest cause of death in the country.

Homelessness is not listed as an official cause of death, and, due to lack of funding, there is not a lot of research going into homeless mortality rates. I can’t tell you how many homeless people die a year in the UK. However, these are the facts I can give you, sourced from a 2011 study published by Crisis – Homelessness: The Silent Killer.

– The average age of death for a homeless person 47. This is 30 years younger than the general population

  • Drugs and alcohol are the cause of over a third of deaths across the homeless

– Homeless people are more than 9 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

– They are also 3 times more likely to die in a traffic accident, twice as likely to die from infection, and 3 times more likely to die as a result of a fall.

Homelessness kills.

Yes, cancer takes a much bigger chunk of our population away from us, but homeless kills people in a much more violent way, and at a far younger age (over half of deaths caused by cancer occur in patients over 75).

I understand why we donate so much money to cancer research. And I wouldn’t take a penny away from that fund. But when I think of the fact that the top three charities for homeless people combined (Shelter, Crisis UK and Centrepoint) raise a total of £31,176,000 in donations between them, which is less than 9% of the funds raised by Cancer Research UK alone, I am astounded.

The RSPCA alone also raises almost 70% more than the top three homeless charities combined. The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden raises over 40% more.

The homeless population is the most vulnerable sector of our society. And they are being ignored. The top three homeless charities combined can’t raise even half of the funds that a single animal charity can. What does this tell us? We care more about our pets than our people.

Think of the money we are willing to donate to finding a cure for cancer. Now imagine that we already had a cure, but we needed to raise funds to make it available to everybody. Imagine how much we would be willing to give to make that happen.

There is already a cure out there for homelessness. The materials and resources are all right there. With enough money, we could make it so that not a single person in the country would ever be forced to sleep on the streets. But we won’t take that step.

Why? Because homelessness will never take away people like Rickman or Bowie. Homelessness will never take away our stars. Homelessness only takes the people who are already invisible.

But Danny wasn’t invisible to me. And neither should anyone else be.

You can find more blog posts and articles by Eleanor Buchanan at eleanorbuchanan.com

1 COMMENT

  1. Beautiful and powerful: so sorry I didn’t get back to you! Very busy. I’d love to write about your take on things. Please give me a call. These are very important things. All the best, Paula xxxx

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