Why did Sharron Maasz, a much-loved outreach worker, end up dying homeless herself?

Simon Hattenstone and Daniel Lavelle

‘I was a single mum, working in a full-time job, helping people who’ve got issues, and it all got too much for me,” Sharron Maasz told a film-maker in 2012. Maasz’s ambition was to write a book about her life. The message behind it would be simple: homelessness can happen to anybody. Nobody knew that better than Maasz. Before she ended up sleeping rough for 10 years, she was an outreach worker supporting homeless people in Oxford.

Few homeless people get the chance to tell their story. Maasz was the subject of two short films, and in August 2018 she told the Guardian she had just started dictating her life story into a recorder she had been given. She was going to put everything into it: the domestic abuse that led to her losing her children, home and job; life on the streets; dual addiction to alcohol and drugs. She hoped that the story would have a feelgood ending – recovery, a new home, the published book. But, on 22 January, Sharron Maasz died in supported accommodation in Oxford aged 44.


726 homeless people died in England and Wales in 2018, according to the latest ONS figures. Over the next few months, G2 and Guardian Cities will look behind this statistic to tell the stories of some of those who have died on Britain’s streets. We will tell not just the story of their death, but the story of their life – what they were like as kids, what their dreams were, their hobbies, what people loved about them, what was infuriating. We will also examine what went wrong with their lives, how it impacted on their loved ones, and if anything could have been done differently to prevent their deaths. 

As the series develops, we will invite politicians, charities and homelessness organisations to respond to the issues raised. We will also ask readers to offer their own stories and reflections on homelessness. We want the stories we tell to become the fulcrum of a debate about homelessness; to make a difference to a scourge that shames us all. 

It is time to stop just passing by.


Maasz was the fourth homeless person to die in Oxford since November 2018. What seemed so shocking is that this is a city defined, in the eyes of outsiders at least, by privilege, opulence and success. But perhaps we shouldn’t have been shocked. Oxford has always been a place of extremes – a city of dreaming spires for some, a city of hand-to-mouth survival for many others.

Maasz was never one of those who assumed she was destined to succeed. But she certainly had her dreams. Her former headteacher at middle school, Roger Pepworth, says: “Sharron was a lively and sensitive girl. She was a keen cyclist and an all-round athlete. When she was 11 or 12, she did the Brighton to London bike ride. She was the only pupil who did it in the school that year.”

Maasz and her brother Charlie came from a working-class family and lived on an estate in Oxford. They were brought up by their father, Alan, a forward-thinking man with left-leaning politics. Alan Maasz started out as a painter and decorator, then became a college lecturer, teaching the trade to female students.

From middle school, Maasz went to a comprehensive. “A good one,” according to Pepworth. Was she bright? “She was, but she slightly underperformed. She was a canny lass, bubbly and sharp. She was popular and competitive.” Pepworth says she was self-reliant, like her father. “I wouldn’t say he was living off his wits, but as a single parent, both having to work and look after his kids, it wasn’t easy. He brought the kids up to be independent.” Did Pepworth have any sense that Maasz was troubled as a child? “No, none whatsoever. She was a perfectly happy, normal kid.”

A few days after we speak to Pepworth, Alan Maasz emails. “Hi, Roger suggested I get in touch with you regarding my late daughter, Sharron. The inquest into her death is to be held soon, so as a family we are still in a state of distress, with many unanswered questions. I feel my daughter and my grandchildren were let down by various organisations right from the outset of her introduction to drugs. If you would like to email with an outline of any information you require, I will discuss it with my grandchildren and seek their approval to respond.”

But, as so often with people who have died homeless, the surviving family is divided. One of her children also gets in touch to say they would like to talk to us, but in the end they decide not to talk on the record for fear it may cause a family rift.

* * *

Sharron Maasz was very particular about the pronunciation of her name – unlike the regular Sharon, the emphasis was on the rron. She used to say there had never been a first name so fiercely debated. Her mother insisted it was pronounced Sharron, and eventually she did, too. After school, Maasz worked as a hairdresser, then became a full-time support worker for drug addicts and former prisoners in Oxford. According to those who knew her at the time, she was a brilliant support worker – kind, caring, generous and funny. She was the same in her private life – sometimes it worked against her, with men in particular taking advantage of her nature.

Maasz had three children with different partners and fostered another. She suffered mental health issues from her late teens and said she had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Like many teenagers, she dabbled with drugs, but she claimed she was clean for 12 years till she was 30. Her family say she was happiest in these years – working, cooking, bringing up her children. Maasz was well known and well liked – a big personality with a social conscience. When she wasn’t working or looking after her children, she would often be out and about helping homeless people on a voluntary basis.

Ultimately, she said, the abuse she suffered at the hands of a partner (not one of the fathers of her children) damaged her irreparably. She had a breakdown and became addicted to crack and heroin. The abusive partner, who had moved in with Maasz and her children, was eventually sentenced to five years in jail. But by the time she fled the family home, her children had been taken away from her. She was never subsequently housed by the council, which is why she ended up on the streets in her early 30s.

  • Sharron, right, with her daughter, Leah.

In 2012, the US homelessness activist Mark Horvath made a moving five-minute video about Maasz. Despite its brevity, her complex character is conveyed in full. In the film Maasz is friendly, giggly, optimistic, resilient, tearful and, ultimately, desperate. It was the middle of winter, she had a scarf wrapped tight around her neck, and in her furry deerstalker hat she looked like a sassy pigeon. She told Horvath she was born and bred in Oxford. “Great town! Oxonian by heart.”

She said she had left her house in Jericho, Oxford, for a women’s refuge in Birmingham, but returned to her home city a couple of years before the film was made because she was worried about her children. “The long and short of it is I’ve been sleeping rough here for two and a bit years.” When asked how she survives, she laughed and looked puzzled. “That’s a good question. Through the grace of God, I think. We get donations of clothes. And obviously, being born and bred Oxonian, there are people who have known me and they give me a bit of support when they can and I just survive hand to mouth.”

6 homeless people have died in Oxford since November 2018

Maasz said she was sleeping in a children’s park in Cowley, in the south-east of Oxford, because it was safer than bedding down in the city centre. “I had an incident happened in the town centre,” she explained, “so I’m not happy about sleeping out in the town centre because of my mental-health issues.”

Horvath probed her gently, empathetically. “You used to work in the sector?” “I did, yes. I left in 2003, I gave in my resignation.” She said that, as a single mother working full time with society’s most vulnerable people, life had just got on top of her. She acknowledged the irony that she had worked with homeless people and had now become one herself. “Yes, life has its funny turns,” she said, before explaining that this had helped her adapt to her new life. “People are familiar with me from back then, which has made my path a little bit easier because I knew a lot of the homeless people.”

Maasz was almost impossibly cheery about her circumstances. Until, that is, she was asked what her future looked like. “This time last year I had more hopes. But, as the years are going by, I’m feeling that it’s more and more further away.” When asked if she had three wishes what would they be, her voice cracked and she started to cry. “Have somewhere to live, my children back with me, and just to be back living like a normal person. Whatever normal is.”

There is an almost uncanny correlation between the life of Sharron Maasz and her friend, 49-year-old Monica Gregory. But it is an inverse correlation. When Maasz worked for social services and was an outreach worker, Gregory was homeless in Oxford and then in Glasgow. While Maasz was extrovert and assertive, Gregory was introverted and meek. A few years ago, Gregory met Shaista Aziz, a local Labour councillor, comedian and journalist, and Aziz helped bring her out of herself. Gregory discovered her voice, developed a degree of confidence and began to do outreach work with homeless people. That was when she met Maasz.

She’d be very familiar with you, which is why so many people liked her. She was quite commanding – a big presence in a small space

Lucy Warin

Gregory also escaped abusive relationships. In her early 20s, she lived with an alcoholic who beat her unconscious (Gregory has never had addiction issues). She accepted the abuse because she thought she was worthless. But after her partner assaulted her family – he pushed both her father and brother down concrete stairs – she knew she had to escape. “That was the tipping point. When he did that to my brother and my dad, I thought I can’t do it no more. I just walked out of the house.”

She could have stayed with either her father or brother, but she was fearful for them. Her partner knew where they lived and would come looking for revenge. So she ran away and lived on the streets for six weeks. It was a horrific time, she says. “I hid myself under the bushes so nobody could spot me. I didn’t sleep in those six weeks. You always have men come up to you and ask if you’re a working girl. When the police spotted me, my first words to them were: ‘Just let me die.’”

Gregory sips at her Diet Coke in an Oxford pub and calmly tells us about her horrific childhood. She is quietly spoken with short hair and coral-blue eyes. At the age of 13, she says, she was raped at knifepoint soon after her best friend had gone missing. “The man who raped me then showed me where my best friend’s body was buried. He had her and buried her under a garden shed.”

It sounds far-fetched, but she tells us the names and dates and they all check out. She led the police to the body and told them that the killer, a family friend, had also raped her. The man was convicted of her friend’s manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, but Gregory says she simply doesn’t know if he was convicted of her rape. Soon after this, Gregory was taken into care. Not surprisingly, she believes her childhood left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, from which she has never recovered.

  • Monica Gregory (left) with local councillor Shaista Aziz. Photograph: Ben Gurr/The Guardian

After those six weeks sleeping rough at the age of 22, Gregory spent a number of years off the streets but still homeless. She had her first child while sofa surfing, and remains friends with his father. Then she found herself in another abusive relationship (“I was getting beatings every single day”), and Gregory was put in a refuge for women. By now she had two children. The intervention may well have saved her life but, for many years after, Gregory barely felt alive. She never believed she was worthy of sympathy or attention, let alone love. However subdued she might seem now, Gregory promises us she is nothing like the ghost of yesteryear.

It was two years ago that Aziz, who was working on a homelessness project in Cowley Road, first met her. “There was this woman with these beautiful blue sparkly eyes that were just dead,” Aziz says. “I’ve seen a lot of people with that dead-eyed look around the world and these people have normally survived earthquakes and tsunamis, not been people living in my city. She wouldn’t look at me or anybody. Eventually, she started talking to me, but she’d look off. Then one day she said: ‘I’m going to apply for a job, I need you to help me with a CV.’”

Gregory told Aziz about the physical and sexual abuse she had suffered. She didn’t get the job Aziz helped her apply for, but from then on they met up every week. “I just saw this incredible woman opening up and becoming more confident,” Aziz says. With Gregory’s help, Aziz set up the Women’s Hope Forum for women experiencing rough sleeping in Oxford. “I think it’s amazing that women who are deemed to be at the bottom of the barrel still have hope,” says Aziz. “That says a lot about them.”

The students will throw drinks over homeless people and toilet over them when they’re drunk. And they throw bottles. I’ve seen it

Monica Gregory

The Women’s Hope Forum met at a project called Open House in Oxford – a space in which all sorts of people gathered to talk about what they wanted from housing. Wealthy home-owners, privileged university students and people sleeping on the streets dropped in for cake and tea, to discuss housing and join in group poetry-writing sessions. Towards the end of her life, Maasz attended a few sessions with Gregory. Maasz was keener on the cake than the poetry.

Lucy Warin, an urban designer, helps run Open House. She only met Maasz three or four times, but was left with a distinct impression of her. “Sharron would come for 20 minutes with her dogs at the end of the day. She’d be very familiar with you, which is why so many people liked her. She’d come very close to you, and ask your name straightaway. She was quite commanding – a big presence in a small space.” Warin believes Open House has done much to break down barriers between homeless people and other parts of the community. But the week we talk it is preparing to shut down. Its one-year lease, from the university of Oxford, has expired.

* * *

Gregory first got to know Maasz two years before the latter died when she started doing outreach work. From the start, there was a special bond. They had both experienced domestic abuse and understood the perils of street life. But there was a crucial difference. Gregory had clung on to her children through the worst of times (her boys are now aged 18 and 15); Maasz hadn’t. Gregory talked to Maasz about so much, but this was one avenue she did not want to explore. “One day somebody said something about her kids to her and I saw the pain on her face, and I thought, I can’t put her through no more pain,” Gregory says.

£9bn: the estimated consolidated net assets of Oxford University and its colleges

So they talked about outreach work, life’s surprising reverses, Maasz’s dogs, CeeCee and Jack Hammer, her writing ambitions, how she wanted to get off the streets and, a favourite topic, the perception that everybody from Oxford was posh. “Sharron used to take the mickey out of the posh side,” Gregory says. “She’d try to speak posh, and you’re sat there in fits of laughter when she’s imitating them.” How did the students treat them? It depends what state they’re in, Gregory says. “The students will throw drinks over homeless people and toilet over them when they’re drunk. And they throw bottles. I’ve seen it.”

Were there times when Maasz was resentful of what had become of her life? “It depends what personality she was,” Gregory says. “One day she could be Sharron, another she’d be somebody else. She’d say: ‘I’m not Sharron today.’ When she’s Sharron, she’s happy; when she’s somebody else, you don’t go near her. I would walk up to her and say: ‘Are you grumpy or are you Mrs Happy today?’ If I got a growl I knew she was Mrs Grumpy; if she was smiling and laughing I knew I’d got Mrs Happy.” She pauses. “She was an amazing girl, you know. I nearly always got the happy.”

Gregory mentions Maasz’s long-term street partner, Pip. Now he can be proper grumpy, she says, but he was always good with Maasz – even after they split up. Does she know where we can find him? “By the Tesco, probably. But don’t tell him I told you where he’d be.” She says he will be easy to spot – he’s adopted Maasz’s two dogs.

  • Sharron with her dogs, Ceecee and Jack Hammer. Her street partner, Pip, has adopted them both

We head off into town, where the poverty is every bit as conspicuous as the wealth – so many imposing doorways hosting homeless people. We don’t need to show pictures of Maasz. Everybody knows her, the dogs, Pip and the tragedy. And nobody can make any sense of it. It is 2 September, the second day of the annual St Giles’ Fair, which dates back to the 17th century and became a celebrated children’s fair in Victorian times. And there really does feel something Dickensian about it today – the bustle of crowded streets, the whirr of mechanical rides, the caramelised whiff of toffee apples, and, wherever you look, homeless people taking shelter or trying to make a few quid. There is no sign of CeeCee, Jack Hammer or Pip.

Every new building is about students. That quad they’re building is not for people like me, it’s for the universities to make money from

Andy

Outside Tesco, Andy tells us he’s not seen Pip for a couple of hours. By his side is a bag of spice. He insists he doesn’t touch the synthetic cannibanoid. When we offer to put the bag in the bin, he anxiously checks it for dregs. “I knew Sharron when she was an outreach worker,” he says. Why did she end up living on the streets? “She lost her kids and a few bad things happened to her. She had a very shit relationship.” He goes into the unsavoury details. Andy says he, Maasz and Pip have known each other for years. “We were hanging out together, we slept out together. We’d sleep here – anywhere with cover.” How did they pass the days? “Getting by, having a drink, getting some food, just trying to get the day over as quickly as possible really.”

What did he call her? “I always called her Sharon, and she used to bollock me for it because her name’s Sharron. She was quality. It was horrible when it happened.” How did he find out she had died? “I was drinking outside the night shelter. I was gutted. Proper gutted. We were very shocked. I’d been with her the day before just walking around having a drink, having a laugh. She was fine. I don’t know what happened. It crippled Pip. He’s got the dogs now – CeeCee and Jack Hammer. D’you know why he’s called Jack Hammer? Sharron’s grandfather was a bare-knuckled fighter and his fighting name was Jack Hammer. He’s a lovely dog, not really a Jack Hammer. Everyone just calls him Jack.”

Andy, who is 41, is one of 94 people estimated to be sleeping rough in Oxford, an almost twelvefold rise from eight in 2011. In 2017, only Westminster, Brighton and Hove, Camden, Bedford and Luton had a higher rough sleeping rate per capita in England. Andy lost his flat after serving a prison sentence. “I’ve been homeless ever since,” he says. “They don’t offer you no support when you come out of prison, no place to stay; they give you £46 and kick you out of the door.”

£300m: the size of the budget cut Oxfordshire county council has had to make since 2010

Oxford is a great place for students and the wealthy, he says, but not for the poor. “Everywhere’s so expensive here. I was born in Oxford, but it’s all student-oriented. You go to any shop and they give 20% discount to a student who’s been in Oxford for about two weeks, then someone who’s lived here all his life gets no discount. We get fuck all. Every new building is about students. That quad they’re building is not for people like me, it’s for students and for the universities to make money from.”

He has got a point. Last year, it was estimated that Oxford University and its colleges had consolidated net assets of £9bn. Apart from Cambridge, Oxford requires the highest income of any city outside of London to buy a home. Meanwhile, there is a shocking contrast in life expectancy for the rich and poor. Men living in Northfield Brook, one of the poorest wards in Oxford, die on average at 75 – 15 years younger than their counterparts in North ward, one of Oxford’s most affluent areas.

Another homeless person joins us. He is handsome, but his back is bent, he limps and he talks in a drug-induced slur. Simeon says he knows where Pip is, and he is happy to take us. We walk and walk, twisting our way through side streets and alleys, the fair still thrumming in the background. After about 20 minutes, he stops halfway down a hill. “Pip is down there. But I’m going to leave you here because I don’t want him to know I’ve brought you here.” He tells us he hopes we will make his efforts worth his while. We give him £5, and head down the hill. There is no sign of Pip, CeeCee or Jack Hammer. We look back up the hill. Nor is there any sign of Simeon.

* * *

When, 10 days after Maasz died, the Guardian reported the spike in homeless deaths in Oxford, the Labour-led council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for leisure and housing, Linda Smith, wrote a letter to the paper putting it all into context: “It is right to highlight the lack of drug, alcohol and mental health support that many rough sleepers need to successfully rebuild their lives, and this is a direct consequence of austerity. Since 2010, Oxfordshire county council has had to make more than £300m in cuts that include many of these services – and the consequences are all too evident on our streets.”

Today, Smith tells us she is not shocked that five people who had experienced street homelessness died in Oxford in such a short period of time (there had been a further death since Maasz died). “It’s not surprising at all. We know homelessness kills. The statistics bear that out, with people experiencing rough sleeping and homelessness having a life expectancy that is in their 40s. That is really shocking, and we’ve got a lot of rough sleepers and homeless people in Oxford.” She lists the ways in which the council has responded to the homelessness crisis: dozens of extra beds for rough sleepers in a new hub; a “severe-weather emergency protocol”, activated when the temperature is predicted to fall below zero (previously it had to be three nights below zero); a new emergency winter shelter.

  • Sharron and Jack Hammer photographed in 2018 when she spoke to G2 about a crowdfunding scheme for homeless people. Photograph: Sam Frost/The Guardian

But why would a woman such as Maasz have to rely on emergency accommodation? Surely she was an ideal candidate for council housing? “She was housed,” Smith says tersely. “She was in women-only supported accommodation. She didn’t die on the streets. She was accommodated by the council because she did have that local connection.”

Smith becomes more expansive about a scheme she is obviously proud of. “It’s a women-only project we are trialling. There are not any male visitors allowed. And that was because a lot of women experiencing homelessness have experienced domestic abuse and maybe sexual abuse. For some women, having that kind of women-only environment is very therapeutic and helps with their recovery.”

* * *

It is early October, and Maasz’s inquest is being held at the coroner’s court. Often coroners’ courts are empty when the deceased is a homeless person. But today three generations of the family are here (Maasz’s father, her sister Lucy and her daughter Leah, with her fiance), as well as three journalists and a police officer. The coroner, Darren Salter, is plumped up on a red throne and peers down at the family to address them.

Despite his elevated station, Salter is a mild-mannered man. He explains that we are here to discover when, where, why and how Maasz died. The account of her life is bald and depressing. We hear nothing about her work, her dreams, her talents, her generosity of spirit. There is no reference to a life spent helping homeless people, or the sadness that she ended up that way herself. There is no mention that Maasz was one of five homeless deaths in Oxford in a matter of months. Maasz is presented to us purely and simply as a junkie – a woman who lived as an addict, and died as one.

It emerges that a man whom Salter describes as Maasz’s boyfriend, Jake Smith, was in her bedroom when she died. He called the ambulance service to tell them Maasz was not breathing, then left the scene. Smith, who had been released from prison and had breached his licence conditions, was later regarded as a potential suspect in the death of Maasz – the suggestion was that he may have administered the fatal drugs to her. He was interviewed by DS Darren Little in prison. He told the detective that he could not help Maasz when she was dying because he couldn’t stand up after hitting an artery when injecting himself with heroin.

  • Sharron Maasz, left, with her sister Lucy.

The coroner asks the family if they have any questions. Maasz’s sister Lucy asks how, if Smith was in such a bad state, he was able to leave before the ambulance arrived. Little says he was also baffled by this. “I raised exactly the same question in the interview, and he couldn’t provide an adequate explanation.” Ultimately, though, Little could find no evidence of third-party involvement in Maasz’s death. Salter rules that there were a number of contributory factors: mixed drug toxicity (heroin, cocaine and methadone were found in her system); a necrotising soft tissue infection; cirrhosis of the liver; and possibly hypothermia. Salter concludes it was a drug-related death.

Surprisingly, the coroner fails to mention that Smith should not have been there at all because it was women-only supported accommodation. Salter did not ask why support staff had allowed Smith into the accommodation, nor did he call Homeless Oxfordshire, the charity that runs the property, as a witness.

Perhaps Maasz was destined to die in her early 40s. Certainly the pathologist’s report revealed that she was in a terrible physical state, and the toxicology report showed she had relapsed – and badly. But, yet again, a simple systemic failing may have contributed to the death of a homeless person. Smith should never have been allowed in the women-only accommodation where both he and Maasz binged on class-A drugs, and where Maasz died.

They did not think the whole set-up through properly. If they had done, maybe Sharron would still be alive

Maasz family statement

We ask Homeless Oxfordshire, which is commissioned by Oxford city council to provide supported accommodation in community settings, why Smith was allowed in the accommodation. It makes no attempt to answer the question, stating: “Whilst we advocate risk reduction and encourage positive choices, our clients may relapse or make a negative decision that has a severe impact on their lives, and in some cases this can lead to death from an overdose or accident whilst under the influence.”

When we ask Oxford city council whether there will be an investigation into why Smith was allowed into the accommodation, it tells us that the five residents had agreed “to enforce these rules themselves”. The statement further explains: “An on-call duty manager is available around the clock, and CCTV footage can be reviewed in the event of any reported issue or incident. As the aim of the project is to involve and support residents towards independent living, there is not a continuous staff presence in the house or real-time monitoring of CCTV. This is consistent with similar dispersed-accommodation projects around the country.”

A few days after receiving our response from the council, we receive an answer to a freedom of information request that is subtly different in its emphasis, and appears to suggest that the CCTV in Maasz’s accommodation was not there simply for retrospective investigations after an incident. It states: “As the aim of the project is to involve and support residents towards independent living, there is not a continuous staff presence in the house. However, an on-call duty manager is available around the clock, and CCTV footage is relayed live to O’Hanlon House [a large hostel in central Oxford run by Homeless Oxfordshire], where it can be viewed in real time. This is consistent with similar dispersed-accommodation projects around the country.”

Oxford city council further states that in February, after the deaths of five homeless people, including Maasz, it asked the statutory Oxfordshire Safeguarding Adults Board (OSAB) to consider undertaking an independent investigation. “Following an initial investigation, the OSAB concluded that a safeguarding adults review was not required – for the most part, these individuals were accommodated at the time of their deaths, and those who were rough sleeping either died of natural causes or had pre-existing health conditions not directly associated with their homelessness.”

This year, after the death of Kane Walker in Birmingham, the Labour MP Liam Byrne said there should be a safeguarding adults review after every homeless death in the country. The OSAB’s justification for not conducting a safeguarding adults review is questionable at best. If those who died were accommodated at the time of their death, surely there should be an investigation to see if anything went wrong with the support offered at that accommodation. In the case of Maasz, we know there should have been no guests at the house, and that self-regulation (a contradiction in supported accommodation) clearly, and tragically, failed. Maasz had been sleeping on the streets two months earlier. To suggest that her death was not directly associated with her homelessness seems illogical.

In mid-November, we receive a statement from a family member saying they believe Maasz was let down. “They have not set this accommodation up appropriately,” the statement says. “They had no staff to make sure the condition of no men being in the building was being met. They did not think the whole set-up through properly. If they had done, maybe Jake Smith wouldn’t have been able to enter the building and Sharron would still be alive.” The statement says that the family member met Maasz most days, towards the end of her life, and had never heard her mention the name Jake Smith.

Last week it was reported that another homeless person – the sixth since November 2018 – had died in Oxford. The man, as yet unnamed, was aged 46. It was the second death this year at Oxford’s homeless shelter Simon House.

Back in Oxford town centre, Gregory is sharing more memories of Maasz. If she closes her eyes, what most comes to mind? “Her laugh. It’s one of those funny little giggles. She’d find something funny and it would be infectious. Everyone would start laughing and no one knew why they were laughing.” Gregory says she still cannot believe her friend is dead, because she seemed so determined to turn her life around. “I thought she’d do really well when she went in that women’s project.”

Maasz’s death has devastated Gregory, but it has helped put her own achievements into context. A few months ago she started a paid job working for a charity. “If you’d said to me this time last year that I’d be in a job, I would have just laughed at you,” she says. “What happened to Sharron has made me even more determined to prove my family wrong as well. I remember my mum’s words: ‘You’re going to turn to drugs or drink and wreck your life.’ And you know what, I’ve still got my two boys with me. I’m still here, I’m still standing.”

* * *

Ten years ago, the first short film was made about Maasz soon after she became homeless. In her purple wellies and purple quilted jacket, and with a can of Tennent’s lager in her hand, she could have passed for a kids’ TV presenter fallen on hard times. It looked like spring, and she said she had been sleeping rough since the previous November. “I’ve made a lot of bad choices and I’ve paid for them all, trust me,” she said. “I was being raped, buggered and beaten by a bastard.”

In the film, she is shown living on the canal towpath and gives a remarkable insight into her life. We meet the two dogs; she shows us the community bed she and a couple of homeless friends sleep on hidden in a bush underneath a canal bridge; we join her at the water’s edge where she washes her face. We see what a skilled blagger she is, sat between two cash machines, telling a passing woman how beautiful she looks in her dress, and being paid handsomely for her compliments. “We could be out for eight hours and make £12, or we could be out for eight hours and every now and again, God bless them, we can make £100.”

And all the time, she points out the perversity of a system that seems determined to punish her whatever her best intentions. She points to a letter from the NHS informing her that she didn’t qualify for a methadone prescription because she was only using a small amount of the heroin substitute and was not injecting heroin. “What do they want me to do, go out and start injecting in my groin again?” she asks. “They could have had me off that [heroin] in six weeks.”

The video is unusual because, although it is about Maasz, it also feels as if it has been authored by her. She may never have been in control of the narrative of her life, but she certainly seemed in control of the narrative of this short film. Her message is clear, and delivered with utter conviction. “Just because you’re on the streets you’re not a piece of rubbish,” she says. “Why not take a step back? Don’t judge a book by its cover. Why not open it up and take a look inside?”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org

If you are worried about becoming homeless, contact the housing department of your local authority to fill in a homeless application. You can use the gov.uk website to find your local council

Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to join the discussion, catch up on our best stories or sign up for our weekly newsletter