The man who fell through the system

There were loads of us piling into the hall for the after-ceremony drinks. We were eager to celebrate with the free wine after three years of hard work. It was November 2019, and beneath the graduation caps and behind the smiles were budding journalism graduates, enjoying the brief moment between university and the frightful dread of freelancing, or worse – marketing. 

I checked my phone in between sips and saw a message from an unknown number in Hastings. They’d left a voicemail. His voice placed him in his 60s, a smoker, from Sussex, a little cheeky and a little weak. He said he was in trouble and wanted me to report his story. I couldn’t believe it: this was an early opportunity to my new skills into practice. 

Unfortunately, I was the last in a long line of people that got there too late. He was a much-loved and strong local character, a sailor and pianist. I’m reminded of his story as we find ourselves amidst a pandemic, in which so many vulnerable people in our town are lonely, desperate and without the support they need to survive. It’s too late to help Chris, with sadness, and all I can do to help is to share some of his story.

In the early 1990s, Chris had fallen down into a ship’s hold and lay unconscious for four days, severely damaging his arm and leg and leaving him with a life-long disability. When we arranged to meet, he had a limp but good use of his arm, which he used to smoke. He was clearly very tired; he said he’d lost two and a half stone very quickly. He was drained from the stress and worry of losing his home. He was being threatened with eviction from his sheltered accommodation in St Leonards. 

This was not Chris’s first fight. Born in Bexhill, he spent much of his life at sea until he returned to Hastings to look after his elderly mother. When she passed away, he briefly lived in rented accommodation in 2008 before being evicted by a landlord who would no longer accept tenants receiving housing benefit. Chris had to sleep on the beach for five months. He continued to battle for access to the services denied him by the authorities until he was re-homed by Rother District Council and awarded £8,000 in compensation for being evicted without due notice. Unfortunately, by then, he had been struggling with depression for some time and was hospitalised for six months.

Yet from our only meeting, I could tell Chris was a charming, considerate man who, despite his troubles, retained a great sense of humour. When we met, he was waiting for me with a remembrance poppy that he’d bought specially. 

He was living in sheltered accommodation that’s run by a not-for-profit provider of retirement and extra-care housing, which was paid for by his housing benefit. He was totally consumed by a battle with a fellow resident and the management of the housing association. This conflict caused the association to seek repossession of his flat. Chris had a folder full to the brim of documents detailing arrest reports, internal mediation reports, letters from the housing organisation’s management team and the Citizens Advice Bureau and his private records of the conflicts. I’ve still got stacks of paperwork he passed on that show a long, painful conflict that could break anyone down.

Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t sleeping, and his health was deteriorating. He was very frightened he would have to go back to sleeping on the beach. His words: “The only way I’m leaving here is in a body bag,” still haunt me.

When Chris wasn’t messaging me about his case, he was sending me pictures of his garden from the 23,000 he’d taken. I thought they would never stop coming. Some of his neighbours had asked him to look after theirs too and he was quite rightly very proud of that. He said it was a memorial to his mother, a great gardener, and also an effective way to stay away from the pub. As a recovering alcoholic, he was seven years sober and he said that was partly thanks to his garden.

It was difficult to follow his case at times, which at face value seemed to show significant disservice to a vulnerable man at the hands of many in his life, while also bearing in mind this was a complicated and messy situation, and it’s likely he may have taken some wrong turnings along the way. Chris admitted that too. He was struggling with the crippling fear of becoming homeless and the fear of this was making him ill. At the time of our meeting, he was busy trying to prepare a defence and looking for a solicitor, having made several appointments with housing specialists. 

I saw two documents addressed to Chris by his housing organisation – one of which had stated his court date incorrectly – and it was understandable that he was confused by an overwhelming amount of paperwork with little
or no support in navigating his way through it. 

Chris was due to attend a 10-minute hearing at the County Court in Hastings on the 29th November.

Our last communication was a long list of his fellow residents who were willing to speak to me regarding the initial investigation and he thanked me for listening when others didn’t. 

I found out on Facebook that shortly before the 29th November, Chris passed away. I get the impression that many of his friends and family didn’t know quite how much he was struggling. 

Honestly, I’ve struggled with how to deal with this as a reporter, how to write this up with limited information, and whether or not I should write it up at all. However, in tribute to the charming man
I met, I hope, in these times especially, we look after each other better and check on those who may be struggling around us. 

Chris found himself in horrific situations which were preventable having to fight to live, be housed and maintain his mental and physical health; a battle he eventually lost. With a story full of hardship and struggle, he was so determined to live and fight, in spite of the systemic failure of government and housing. I think he was discarded for being disabled, for relying on housing benefit, for getting older and for living alone. This was a man that needed support and had no safety net to catch him as he continued to fall through a broken system. He will of course be remembered for so much more: his strength, humour and life out at sea. HIP’s deepest condolences go to his friends and family. 

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