It’s been a week since 48-year old Phil Gilbert was sadly found dead on Lloyds Bank premises in Shaftesbury High Street. Dorset’s coroner hasn’t been able to trace Phil’s next of kin. Alfred spoke with locals who want more done for Shaftesbury’s homeless.
Bill Sherriff often helps to tidy up Shaftesbury’s town centre streets early in the mornings. He frequently spoke with Phil Gilbert, who had recently been rough sleeping on the High Street. “I am up early and, not every day, he’d be in the foyer of Lloyds Bank. I would wake him up, or he would be coming around, and occasionally I’d get a bacon roll and a coffee for him from Reeve the Baker,” said Bill, who believes that Phil resorted to sleeping by the cashpoint after his home, a caravan, was evicted from his pitch.
Bill told ThisIsAlfred that he is angry that, ‘Shaftesbury has failed Phil’. Mr Sherriff has written to the Town Council, MP Simon Hoare and community leaders, because he understands that Phil was a former soldier and he’s concerned that army support groups have had their funding cut. Charities like Veteran Assistance UK believe that there are 13,000 homeless or rough sleeping former servicemen and women. Many have mental health issues and PTSD which can lead to drink or drug dependency. This prompted Bill’s letter.
Local enquiries into whether Phil served in the forces have proved inconclusive so far. “There were those who thought not and who discounted his military service,” said Bill, but he is convinced that Phil joined the York and Lancaster Regiment. Recently, a customer recognised Phil in a High Street café. “A visitor to the town with military bearing spotted Philip having a meal in his reduced circumstances and said to Derek (Beer) that he’d served with Phil,” said Bill. Whether or not Phil was a soldier, the fact remains that a man has died rough sleeping on our High Street.
News of Phil’s death has deeply affected many residents. David Grierson is the musical director of Shaftesbury Community Choir. “It was a real shock. We liked the guy. People knew they had to do something about it. Other members of the choir have already contributed to charities like Shelter,” said David.
He says the choir got to know Phil because he attended their Town Hall rehearsals. “It began in the autumn of last year, when he would sometimes come into our choir practice on Wednesday evening. He came in for a bit of warmth I suspect. There is always tea and coffee and biscuits. The choir took to him. He was honestly a musical guy because he would play his flute outside the Cancer Research shop. He came in for a bit of TLC really,” explained David, who said that the choir sang in Phil’s memory last night.
“We had a sort of tribute. One of the songs that we sang was a South African song called ‘Senzeni Na’. It was sung in one of the African languages. It is used in funerals. The words were, very sadly, appropriate,” said David. “Translated, they are ‘What have we done to deserve this? We shall meet again in heaven’. A very nice idea was that we should make a recording of the song and get permission to have it played at his funeral service whenever it takes place.”
There are no funeral dates set currently. Dorset coroner’s office launched an appeal to locate Phil’s next of kin earlier in the week. On Thursday lunchtime, their office confirmed that they had received several calls but they still have not been able to track down Phil’s close contacts or relatives.
David says Phil didn’t reveal much personal information during their chats. “I took him home on one or two occasions. He would speak a little bit about what he had done in the past but not to any great extent. He was reserved about that sort of thing.”
Bill, too, was unable to piece together much about Phil’s life from their conversations. “He was brought up in Hertfordshire and yesterday I was told by others that he had been in various parts of the country. He was quite intellectual. His occupation was a tree surgeon and he told me that he used to clean gravestones and churches,” said Bill.
If you have information on Phil’s next-of-kin, please call the coroner on 01202 454767.
Phil’s death has prompted several locals to question whether more can be done to help Shaftesbury’s homeless. Earlier this month, Dorset Council announced that they’d been awarded nearly half a million pounds from the government to help tackle rough sleeping. Their statement says the money will support the continuation of a project involving outreach agency Julian House and charitable trust The Lantern. It aims to reduce rough sleeping in Weymouth and Portland. Cllr Graham Carr-Jones oversees housing for Dorset Council. His statement said this funding, ‘Provides an important opportunity to extend this work across the rural areas of Dorset’.
We asked Dorset Council whether any of this money would be used in Shaftesbury and, if so, by whom. They didn’t respond to our question within our deadline.
Cllr Derek Beer wants some of this cash to provide support in our part of the county. “It’s up to me to make sure that the fair amounts come here. I shall talk with portfolio holder (Cllr Carr-Jones), who is a reasonable man and a friend of mine, to make sure that North Dorset gets some provision because it’s so important. Even if it is just in Blandford or somewhere in this 60,000-population area (of North Dorset), we need somewhere that people can go at night, keep warm, have a wash or a bite to eat. It’s very important,” said Derek.
Derek says working-age men are often overlooked and there needs to be accommodation provided for single people. “Currently there is no provision. Money needs to go to that type of accommodation because once people slip through the net and their quality of life is dissipated, then they become unemployable and other things take over. Life becomes unbearable,” he said.
“I’ve had people come to see me regularly for years and especially this year. Before Phil’s passing, I was dealing with two cases where people were coming to see me in tears because they had nowhere to go. They had lost their jobs and they just needed help. I know we have agencies of volunteers who will help and do their best, but the rules and regulations are such that we don’t help able-bodied people between 25 and 60. They haven’t got a hope. You need to have a job but to get a job you need to have an address. And you need to have at least one meal a day. I believe that in a society that is as well off as ours it is a national disgrace that we have people living on doorsteps,” said Derek.
Dorset Council’s figures claim that rough sleeping has fallen from 35 to 18 people between 2018 and 2019. But in North Dorset there’s been an increase from 1 to 4 rough sleepers. It is not clear how Dorset Council has compiled these numbers, but Derek doesn’t accept the statistics anyway. “Absolutely not. I know that at St James’ Church, people used to go and sleep on the porch at night and the vicar would allow that. I know people who are sofa surfing. Four is a ludicrous figure. I can think of four people just in Shaftesbury who are in trouble,” said Derek.
Derek doesn’t think that homelessness in Shaftesbury has got better or worse. “On the whole, it’s a kind caring society here. People don’t let people suffer. But once they slip too far then people get to the point where they don’t want them in their home. We don’t want them to get to that point,” he said.
Some people advise making donations to homelessness charities rather than giving to people on the street. Derek says we’re in such a small town, people can make their own minds up about who is in real need. “They are easy to identify because we are a small population and we all know each other. For goodness sake let’s not turn our backs on them. They shouldn’t have to beg or scrounge. They shouldn’t have to be charity cases. Our society should be stronger,” said Derek.
One local organisation uses grants, donations and donated food to help the homeless and ‘hidden homeless’ who are often sleeping on friends’ sofas. Open House is based at Fathers House.
“Phillip was a familiar face at Open House and very much liked by the volunteers,” said Helen Beecham. “He would often visit us to get some help with food, a voucher to fill up his gas bottle or just to sit and have coffee. We are all so saddened to hear the news of his passing, especially as one of our volunteers chatted to him on the Monday before he died, and he was cheerfully telling her about the possibility of moving out of his caravan into accommodation. We only wish that we could have done more for Phillip, and others who are in similar circumstances in the area,” she added.
Open House is open every Tuesday from 10am to 2pm for anyone needing help, advice, company or just a hot drink and soup.
Bill urges locals to consider that some people don’t have the family and support structure that many rely on and they can easily find themselves on the street. “Be more aware. Understand we’re going through an involved social change from family and community to one of individualism and materialism. In my upbringing, we would have Sunday lunch round the table. There’s a different outlook now,” said Bill.
And although Cllr Beer believes Shaftesbury residents are generally supportive of homeless people, he says the UK should do better. “I think the nation has failed. I wouldn’t want to say that Shaftesbury has failed because so many people are helping. What sort of society are we when you go and buy your hair extensions and have your nails made pretty, and we have people living on doorsteps?” asked Derek.
Phil has sadly gone, but Shaftesbury’s Community Choir don’t want him to be forgotten. David says the group has discussed creating a lasting, living memorial. “One member of the choir has been talking with others and came up with the idea of planting a tree in his memory. They talked of the crab apple tree because of the flowers, blossom and how they encourage bees. There will be the opportunity for people to make crab apple jelly in memory of ‘Phil the Flautist’. I’ve written to the Shaftesbury Tree group and told them of this idea,” said David.