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Pals call for probe into death of Big Issue seller

Inquest is told how Neculai Popa died alone in a hostel after Islington Council evicted him from temporary accommodation

27 July, 2018 — By Emily Finch

An inquest at St Pancras Coroner’s Court heard how the Town Hall asked Neculai Popa to pay back rent arrears after he was evicted

FRIENDS of a popular Big Issue seller are seeking a serious case review into his death after it was revealed that Islington Council evicted him from temporary accommodation and was seeking rent arrears despite him being seriously ill.

The inquest at St Pancras Coroner’s Court on Wednesday heard how Neculai Popa weighed just 46kg and “looked older than his stated age of 33”. He died alone in December last year in a hostel room in Euston for those who cannot access public funds.

The inquest heard how Romanian-born Mr Popa had turned to heavy drinking following the death of his seven-year-old son in a road accident and after a relationship breakdown in 2013.

He previously worked as a handyman at Camden Market after coming to Britain in 2007. Before then he was a soldier in the Romanian Army.

Dozens of residents who had befriended Mr Popa on the street gathered to remember him at St Mary’s Church in Upper Street in January, just yards from where he sold the Big Issue.

Written evidence to the inquest from Dr Tim Robson, a specialist GP who works with homeless people at University College Hospital (UCH), was read out by coroner Sarah Bourke.

Dr Robson started treating Mr Popa in January 2016 when he was diagnosed with an inflamed pancreas following a visit to the A&E ward at UCH when he vomited blood.

“We were concerned about his rough sleeping and on March 17 temporary accommodation from Islington Council was found,” he said.

But the statement said the council later found Mr Popa was “not entitled” to public funds. After he was evicted from his home he was asked to pay back rent arrears. This was because the council said selling the Big Issue did not fall within EU Treaty rights which entitled Mr Popa to public money, according to Dr Robson.

The homeless team at UCH found a human rights solicitor for Mr Popa, but “Islington Council didn’t change its decision”, he said.

In a bid to allow him access to public funds, they tried to get Mr Popa a job distributing Even­ing Standard newspapers just a couple of weeks before he died.

Mr Popa was given temporary accommodation at a hostel run by a Christian charity in Euston. The coroner gave his cause of death as alcohol-related after he suffered from liver failure.

Amparo Escobedo, a photo editor who lived near Mr Popa’s Big Issue spot, told the inquest that more should have been done to include members of the community in his care.

She said: “We had a meeting with Islington Council. I wish we had had a meeting six months before, not after he died.”

Another friend, Gordon Bennett, said after the inquest he would be “seeking a serious case review” into his friend’s death, adding: “It’s clear he had a lot of contact with Islington Council.”

He added: “The council should look at what they’ve done. They were convinced enough to give him support for a while but when we’re talking about Windrush and a hostile environment, this is a part of that.

“They should have given support to someone in an emergency situation – he had lost his son. Although it’s not cheap, how much did they end up spending at UCH for Neculai? It pushes the cost somewhere else.”

In her concluding remarks, coroner Sarah Bourke said: “Over the last few months I’ve had a lot of cases about homeless single men who have died. The recognition is that there aren’t any cheap solutions and they need decades of support.

“One of the heartening things is that people were desperately trying to help.”

Housing chief Councillor Diarmaid Ward said: “The death of Neculai Popa was deeply felt by many people in Islington, and our thoughts are with all those who knew him.

“We support calls to learn from the deaths of Neculai and other homeless people. We also call on the government to properly fund help for homeless people, and to change the national rules for No Recourse to Public Funds so vulnerable people are not penalised for being poor.”

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