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Pals’ special tribute to Big Issue seller

Memorial event for man who died as friends attempted to raise funds to get him off streets

26 January, 2018 — By Emily Finch

The memorial event for Neculai Popa at St Mary’s Church

“IT’S really heartbreaking that we let them die. It’s very very wrong,” said Yael Kahn, a friend of Neculai Popa, the 33-year-old Big Issue seller who died last month.

Dozens of Mr Popa’s friends gathered for his memorial event at St Mary’s Church in Upper Street on Saturday, a stone’s throw from where he sold magazines outside Sainsbury’s until just days before his death.

Ms Kahn was brought to tears while sharing memories of Romanian-born Mr Popa who moved to London 10 years ago.

She said: “He was very lively and he was very hopeful for the future. He loved his sweets, but in the end he couldn’t eat the sweets. He was so weak and his condition worsened.

“It is really sad that, in the middle of an affluent area that we are fortunately living in, there are a lot of people that are homeless and we let them die. It’s very, very wrong.”

Mr Popa died in a homeless hostel in Euston on December 5 before an online fundraising campaign set up by his friend Amparo Escobedo to move him into permanent accommodation reached its £3,000 target.

It is believed he had a terminal illness which caused his health to ­deteriorate during the past year.

Mr Popa, who was 33, sold the Big Issue outside Sainsbury’s in Upper Street. PHOTO: JAMIE WALLS

A small green stall which Mr Popa would perch on while selling magazines was surrounded by flowers and took centre stage at the memorial event.

Lara, who did not want to give her surname, said she and her children missed Mr Popa.

She added: “Whatever he tried to do, everything was stacked against him. He was generally ­positive and very happy. He deserved a chance and in our society the chances aren’t there for people. He wanted to build friendships and move on with life.”

Another woman told the memorial of her “utter respect for all homeless people” and how “anybody can become homeless”.

Gordon Bennett, a graphic designer who lives in Old Street, spoke of his friend Mr Popa’s kindness, alongside his determination to get off the streets.

“He wanted to work,” said Mr Bennett. “He earned a qualification, he did a course so he could be a banksman on building sites so he could guide trucks in and out. He got a certificate but wasn’t able to get work.”

Mr Popa’s Big Issue pitch was in front of the new Islington Square development, a multi-million-pound scheme that will see luxury housing and a shopping arcade in Upper Street.

Mr Bennett added: “There was an irony of him sitting there wanting to do that work and seeing the trucks going in and out of a development the likes of you and I cannot afford to live in.

“There are houses worth three or four million pounds, and there is an irony of him just trying to earn some money to pay for his accommodation week by week.”

Graham Stubbs, an estate agent whose office was near Mr Popa’s pitch, said he put the magazine seller in touch with the homeless ­charity St Mungo’s days before his death.

He added: “It looked desperate on the Monday night. I’d never seen him look like he might take his own life. I genuinely thought it was a possibility. To find out he died a few days later was not unexpected.”

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