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Funeral procession in Totnes highlights plight of rough sleepers

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 08, 2012

  • Mourners took turns to carry the coffin of Michael Gething through Totnes, where his friend Graham Walker delivered a moving eulogy (wearing top hat and tails, above). Picture: Steven Haywood

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The cardboard coffin of a homeless man was carried through the centre of Totnes to draw attention to the plight of a rising number of people sleeping rough in the Westcountry.

Michael Gething was found dead in a sleeping bag beside the town's Methodist church last month. He is believed to have died from hypothermia.

The 41-year-old's death has polarised opinion across the South Devon community, with many residents calling for more sheltered accommodation to be made available and others arguing that greater support would only exacerbate the problem.

On Thursday around 150 people walked in silence behind Mr Gething's coffin as it was carried up Fore Street and through Totnes's famous archway. Leading the mourners were his father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle and other family members. Standing with dignity beside his son's coffin, David Gething explained that Michael had chosen a lifestyle alien to most people.

"This is a very sad day for all the family," he said. "Michael spent 24 years drifting up and down the Westcountry. I have been on to him for years to change his lifestyle but he always said he was quite happy living that way."

Mr Gething said that despite the difficulties, he had maintained a good relationship with his son, adding: "This is the way he chose to live his life. He was quiet and friendly and never had a bad word to say about anybody, but he never worked and couldn't settle down anywhere."

The high-profile funeral was the idea Graham Walker, who held a 48-hour vigil in honour of his friend. Dressed in top hat and white bow tie, Mr Walker delivered a moving eulogy, calling on everyone in Totnes to "hold out a hand to the homeless".

"During this vigil I have been really touched by the compassion of people in Totnes," he said. "When people see a homeless person they have three options: to ignore, to condemn, or to understand. I hope that as a result of Michael's death, more people in the town will choose to understand and hopefully help them."

The ceremony was conducted by Rupert Callendar of the Green Funeral Company. In a statement read to the gathering, he said there were "no heroes and no villains" associated with the tragedy.

"Michael had a family who loved him," he said. "Government agencies, churches and charities had all helped him and continued to try to help him, but he wasn't always ready to be helped.

"The purpose of today is to remember that Michael was part of our community and to say that the homeless aren't a different species from the rest of us, but people whose lives have fallen apart."

South Hams District Council was one of the agencies that helped him on numerous occasions. Yesterday, the authority's communications manager, Alison Stoneham, said: "Our thoughts are with Mr Gething's family and friends. He was offered advice, assistance and accommodation by us, 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."

Mrs Stoneham said the council was committed to the Government's "No Second Night Out" policy, adding: "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."

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  • Dewener  |  December 20 2012, 11:14PM

    The numer of homeless people is increasing. How many church/parish/school/sports halls are there in every community, locked up and empty every night while people freeze?

  • PGStrange  |  December 12 2012, 11:59PM

    One thing's for certain - Michael's death has stirred up a lot of debate on this site. As I said in my very first comment, if the story helps to highlight the plight of rough sleepers, hopefully similar tragic deaths may be avoided in the future. Paul Strange, Community Publisher, South Devon (including Totnes People)

  • jabbathebutt  |  December 08 2012, 11:47PM

    Weird how given the millions that have flocked to this country .... the only ones dying of the cold and actualy living on the streets are the Brits either the young or OAPs . And for anyone who wants to red arrow ... go ahead .... but when is the last time you saw an immigrant,illegal or otherwise sleeping rough here ?

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  • Felchus  |  December 08 2012, 10:06PM

    Kazzyb-I did not say that services are set up in a staff-centric way- just that this can sometimes be the case. I used those services for three years once, so do have experience, and have spent the last twenty years providing them. It is more the 'choice' argument that people roll out when these tragedies happen I am commenting on. Public services of all sorts are often set up more to meet the staffs needs than service users-mot service user surveys will tell us that. Yours may not-good-but these discussions are more academic......the presence of a white bear does not mean that most bears are not brown. I must agree with the post about the difference in community spirit.

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  • CharlieDodd  |  December 08 2012, 5:12PM

    I hadn't got a job ready to go to when I left school in the 60's and my dad used to hammer on my bedroom door at the crack of dawn shouting "Get out of bed and look for a job, they're crying out for people at the glue factory!", but I just thought "oh stick it!" and turned over and went back to sleep..:)

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  • raglanron1  |  December 08 2012, 5:01PM

    What a challenge when he chose the way of life. But those of us that see people in these circumstances on the streets are mentally and morally stressed by the fear of society deteriorating. I don't feel I can read this without making some kind of comment, but I feel inadequate in finding a solution. All we can do when we see our 'neighbour' in distress is to offer a helping hand. We are thankful for all the agencies and individuals that try to help. We must never give up however complex the circumstances are. Full marks to his family for doing what they could for him.

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  • CityCyclops  |  December 08 2012, 4:54PM

    I've just returned to home in Plymouth from a shopping trip in Totnes. I find Plymouth so depressing that were it not for the fact my job (minimum pay) is here I'd have gone long ago. Finding alternative work isn't easy at the moment. There is a strong community spirit in Totnes. People don't judge you by the way you dress or the car you drive - they judge you on the way you treat others and your interest in the well-being of all. This man may have chosen to sleep rough but I think we should reflect on the many out there who are sleeping rough; and that includes ex-Servicemen who find themselves homeless on leaving the mob. Each case is different but we shouldn't knock that which we don't know the full story to.

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  • newjanner  |  December 08 2012, 4:24PM

    Yeah nothing wrong with that, Jesus's young cousin John was a world-rejecter too, living rough in the wilderness. That would be John, nephew of God then?

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  • LucyLastick  |  December 08 2012, 4:23PM

    People keep going on about the 'plight of rough sleepers'. According to the text this man CHOSE to sleep rough for 25 years and rejected any help offered. Seems to me he had a good life doing exactly what he wanted to do.

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  • CharlieDodd  |  December 08 2012, 3:29PM

    ..Article quote- 'This is the way he chose to live his life..he never worked and couldn't settle down anywhere'.. Yeah nothing wrong with that, Jesus's young cousin John was a world-rejecter too, living rough in the wilderness. Jesus's verdict on him?- "John is the greatest man ever to be born"- (Matt 11:11)

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