Coffin of homeless man who died in storm to be carried through town
The coffin of a homeless man who is thought to have died of hypothermia in a freezing hail storm is to be carried aloft through a Westcountry town to highlight the plight of rough sleepers.
Michael Gething's funeral cortege will pass through Totnes next month after as many as five homeless people were feared to have perished outdoors since last Christmas.
Friends of the 41-year-old, who was found dead in his sleeping bag beside the town's Methodist church earlier this month, want to prick the conscience of a community which is famed for its alternative ethos.
Graham Walker, a Big Issue seller who lived on the streets for 30 years, is behind the procession, and hopes to encourage small communities to look after their own street people rather than force them to move to "epicentres" of homelessness such as Plymouth, Exeter and Taunton.
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Mr Walker, 58, also plans to hold a two-day vigil, sleeping rough, before the funeral on December 6. He is angry that a town with a reputation for attracting "imports" – who he describes as "fluffy" and "awash with cash" – was able to mobilise massive support to resist a branch of Costa coffee but not to provide suitable facilities for the homeless.
He said: "We should look after our own in small communities – but there are no facilities.
"So they are forced to enter a lion's den where they encounter hardened street people with drug and alcohol problems.
"Everybody here has been focused on the Costa Coffee campaign instead of the guy who has died across the street."
At least three men are said to have died in the past year: Gary Williams, Andrew Day and most recently Mr Gething.
Peter Dunn, co-ordinator of the street pastors, said the town was divided between those with "a lot of heart" for the homeless and others who think helping them encourages more street people to make their home there.
He pointed out that the nearest hostel was in Dartmouth and said the council "could do more" to help by providing a supervised place for people.
"There are actually not that many homeless people sleeping in the town but in the surrounding countryside there are probably up to 20, sleeping in laybys, vans and makeshift tents," he added.
South Hams council said Mr Gething had been offered sheltered accommodation in Dartmouth, but had not taken up the offer.
A spokesman said efforts were underway to address the homelessness problem in Totnes, adding that there was a scheme to offer shelter when the temperature dropped below zero for three nights.
The body of Mr Gething, who had been homeless since the age of 18, will be carried up Fore Street and through Totnes's famous archway.
A small service will be held at the civic square, followed by a burial at Follaton cemetery.
Rupert Callendar, whose Green Funeral Company is providing the cardboard coffin, said: "I was really shocked to find that so many had died in the past year – some say three but it may be as many as five."