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Citizenship

Why Cardboard Gravestones Are Appearing in Bristol


Why Global Citizens Should Care 
Homelessness is a huge problem in the UK and around the world, and the UN Global Goal 11 for sustainable cities and communities includes a call for safe and affordable housing for everyone. Actions like this, to draw attention to the tragedy of people dying on the streets, is a way to raise awareness and demonstrate how serious the issue is. Join the movement to achieve the Global Goals by taking action here.

Shoppers in Bristol city centre might have noticed a striking cardboard gravestone as they walked past Debenhams this week. 

The addition to the shop doorway is a stark reminder of the seriousness of the homelessness crisis in the UK and the dangers posed to those sleeping rough.

The makeshift gravestone is part of an ongoing project to record and remember people who pass away on the streets of the UK with little or no recognition of their lives.  

The piece of cardboard, cut to resemble a gravestone, has been adorned with a message honouring a man who died while homeless outside the shop in February last year.

It reads: “RIP Adam Zajac 1977-2018. He died in this doorway, as shoppers walked by. He was homeless. Remember him.” 

Adam Zajac had been found unconscious under his sleeping bag and after people walking past grew concerned, paramedics were called. Despite their efforts to save him, and the efforts of a nurse who had been walking past before the ambulance arrived, Zajac was pronounced dead at the scene. He was 41 years old. 

The local paper, the Bristol Post, reported that Zajac was well-known and well-liked, and had been seen walking around the area earlier in the day. Friends of his had reportedly gathered around and tried to wake him up earlier too. 

The cardboard gravestone for Zajac is the second to have cropped up in the past two weeks. The other was spotted in a local park honouring Deborah Morris, who died aged 48 while living in a tent. The gravestone says: “Her body was found in a tent in this park. She was homeless, remember her.”

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Bristol is dealing with one of the most serious homelessness situations in the UK, with the third highest number of homeless deaths of all local authorities, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Morris was one of 17 people known to have died while homeless in Bristol in 2017, and Zajac was the sixth person known to have died while sleeping rough in 2018 in the city by the date he passed away on Feb. 5. 

The small print at the bottom of the makeshift gravestones indicates more about the reasons behind creating them. The gravestone message asks passers-by to send an email to the address given if they know of someone who has passed away while homeless and asks them to look in to the Dying Homeless Project. 

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The Dying Homeless Project, while not directly claiming responsibilty for the mysteriously-placed gravestones, is a long-term project launched by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in 2017 to keep a record of those who die while homeless in the UK.

The original investigation prompted the Office of National Statistics to begin its own official count as, shockingly, the actual figures were previously going unreported. 

As of April 2019, the Bureau has handed over the project to the Museum of Homelessness, which will continue to “collate and tell the stories of those dying across the UK”, the organisation’s website says. 

The Museum of Homelessness is a roving history and art museum documenting homelessness in society. It sets up exhibits and runs projects around the country. 

It’s not just Bristol and large cities that see this issue, either. Countrywide, the numbers of people experiencing homelessness — including both rough sleeping and people living in temporary accommodation — have risen and are now estimated to be “at least” 320,000, according to the national charity Shelter. 

Regarding its takeover of this project, the Museum of Homelessness tweeted: “People are dying in hostels, in temp accommodation, and on the streets. It’s not acceptable for these lives to be ignored. Or for these deaths to go unmarked and the causes not be investigated."