Neculai Popa, a popular and dedicated vendor who sold The Big Issue outside Sainsbury’s in Islington died on 5 December. He was 33 years old.
“He had an amazing heart,” says Amparo Escobedo who got to know Neculai after buying the magazine from him. “We became friends. We started calling each other Bro and Sis – a way to tell him he wasn’t alone.”
Amparo explains that in June, after a few weeks of being missing from his pitch, Neculai returned to his post outside Sainsbury’s.
“He showed up again outside the supermarket but very skinny,” Amparo recalls. “He told me he was in hospital with several health issues.
“Next time he didn’t show up for a few days, I went to check at the hospital and there he was. That was when we became friends. After a few days visiting, I discovered a wonderful person who had been struggling for years, trying to find his way out of the street but to make things even harder, with very weak health at that moment.”
Neculai became homeless four years ago after the breakdown of a relationship and losing his job. Previously he had worked at Camden Market. Living on the streets led to serious health problems, and he was hospitalised several times over the last six months. He sold The Big Issue in Islington to pay for hostel accommodation, and Amparo decided to set up a Crowdfunding page to make sure he had shelter over winter.
“The Crowdfunding idea came along as the winter was round the corner,” she says. “It was really important for him not to beg for money and that people saw him working, selling The Big Issue. He didn’t like to ask for help.”
The Crowdfunding page had raised over £1000 to help Neculai before he passed away on 5 December.
Amparo posted a sign outside Sainsbury’s where he sold The Big Issue to inform customers of what had happened. “People loved him,” Amparo says. “When he was in the hospital peopled visited him, called him, texted him. People knew him for years and loved him, he was part of the community.
“I have had so many emails from people saying how much they will miss him.”
Here are some of the messages sent by Neculai’s customers and friends:
“I used to live next door to where he would sell The Big Issue and spoke to him every day that he was there. He was a truly great person, with a heart of gold, and I can’t tell you how sad I am to learn of his passing. When I moved house last year, he was the only person who helped me move. A true gentleman.”
“I was very sad to hear of Nick’s death. I helped him a bit and saw him the day before he died – he was a very courageous and tenacious man.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that Neculai Popa has passed away. He will be missed by so many people.”
“I’m gutted and have lost him and shed a few tears as with many of my colleagues who knew him.”
“I have just seen the notice outside Sainsbury’s I am totally saddened as are many locals, he was a lovely man with a big heart I will miss our conversations.”
“We knew him from chats with him outside Sainsbury’s – we as a family feel very sad as we had invited him to spend Christmas with us.”
A memorial service is planned for the community to remember Nec at 12pm on Saturday January 20 at St Mary’s Church Gardens, Upper Street, London N1 2TX
The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.