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Tragic death of popular Big Issue seller

Well-wishers were raising money to help 33-year-old into winter hostel

15 December, 2017 — By Joe Cooper

Neculai Popa, who was originally from Romania, became a familiar face in Upper Street

A BIG Issue seller with a “golden heart” died as well-wishers were raising money to put him up in a hostel over winter.

Neculai Popa, 33, who was a familiar face outside Sainsbury’s in Upper Street, died in a hostel after several stints in hospital over recent months.

It comes as alarming new figures show the number of people living on the streets in Islington has shot up by 150 per cent in the past year.

Islington Council’s housing chief has said government policies share a large portion of the blame.

Mr Popa, originally from Romania, moved to Italy before settling in the UK 10 years ago. Up until four years ago he had always worked but after the breakdown of a relationship and losing his job through no fault of his own, Mr Popa ended up on the streets.

He handed out magazines or newspapers to earn money to pay for food and sometimes a room in a hostel if he could afford it. But living on the streets took its toll on his health and he was hospitalised on numerous occasions over the past six months.

Mr Popa was befriended by Amparo Escobedo, who lives nearby and registered as his next-of-kin at University College Hospital so she could visit him regularly.

Mr Popa sometimes had temporary accommodation but Ms Escobedo decided to start a crowdfunding campaign to pay for some­thing more permanent when he told her of his declining health. The money raised will now go to a homeless charity in his memory.

“He had an amazing heart,” said Ms Escobedo, a 47-year-old picture editor. “We became friends – I called him brother.”

Ms Escobedo has put up a poster outside Sainsbury’s to let people know the sad news.

“People loved him,” she added. “He never asked for anything. It is heartbreaking what has happened. I have had so many emails from people saying how much they will miss him. One man said that when he was emptying his flat he was the only one who helped him.

“People think homeless people are alone but Neculai was not alone, he was so well liked and he was part of our community.”

Ms Escobedo, who has lived in Islington for three years, added: “I find it so strange in Islington that you can walk out of your door and see a Porsche and so much expensive real estate going up and then see so many people on the streets.”

She also questioned why more was not done to address Mr Popa’s mental state rather than just his physical condition.

Islington Council regularly carries out a street population head count. The latest figures show the number of people actually sleeping on the streets has jumped from 11 to 27 in the space of a year.

Housing chief Diarmaid Ward said: “Government policy certainly does not help, whether it is the end of secure tenancies, welfare reforms or the introduction of Universal Credit, where people have to wait for six weeks to be paid their benefits. My fear is that this will only get worse.”

He outlined the ways the council works with a range of organisations to tackle the problem, including St Mungo’s, Women at the Well and Streets Kitchen, as well as being part of a new scheme called Trailblazers which looks at helping people before they become homeless.

“I am meeting with all of them next week to make sure we are doing all we can,” he added.

St Mungo’s was recently awarded the contract to work with Islington’s street population.

Kathleen Sims, Rough Sleeper Service Develop­ment Manager, said “St Mungo’s provides outreach services in Islington and many other areas where teams go out at night and early in the mornings looking for people sleeping rough and following up referrals. Our first priority is to support people off the streets and into accommodation.

“There are a number of complex reasons why people become homeless. This can include relationship breakdown, problems with ill-health, loss of job or a tenancy.

“Rough sleeping is harmful and dangerous at any time of the year. Living and sleeping in cold weather can, sadly, make an already dangerous situation lethal. In Islington our team has helped 11 people into severe weather emergency shelter since that provision opened, and each week follows up numerous StreetLink referrals.

“If people are concerned about someone sleeping rough, we would urge them to contact StreetLink at streetlink.org.uk”

A government spokesman said: “We’re investing £550million to 2020 to address the issue and implementing the most ambitious legislative reform in decades, the Homelessness Reduction Act. This act means more people get the help they need earlier to prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place.”

The Homelessness Reduction Act will come into effect in April.

If you would like to donate in memory of Mr Popa visit www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/amparo-escobedo-1

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