The Unknown Life Of Józef

I just want to share with you all a little story that is both sad yet inspiring at the same time.

Have any of you heard of Józef Stawinoga?

No? Thought not.

On the Wolverhampton ring road there used to be a tent erected on a grass verge between two lanes. Although few knew anything about him, the guy in the tent wandered the town with a long beard and dirty coat, and was often seen sweeping outside his tent with a broom. He spoke only a few words of English and responded to ‘Fred’. When I first moved there I was always curious about him. He was always placid, never causing trouble and never pestering people.

It turned out that ‘Fred’ was actually Józef. He moved to the UK in the 1940s to lead a fairly normal life, working at a local steelworks. Although his life is still largely a mystery, he is thought to have been involved in the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 and was held as a prisoner by the Russians. His evidently terrible experiences in World War II gave him serious problems with claustrophobia, and the only place he felt safe was on the grass verge of the ring road. No-one knows quite what happened, but he basically disconnected himself from society. He became a tramp, and a fairly common sight in the town.

The council were surprisingly tolerant. In fact, they built replacement tents and at one point it encompassed “an operation involving the army, the police, social services and environmental health“. At the time a spokesperson explained why they were so accepting of Józef’s lifestyle:

“Although this is not an ideal situation it has been accepted as the best option for him, taking into account his personal history and the fact that he can be visited daily by the council’s meals on wheels service.”

Every time I drove on the ring road I would look out at his tent. At night I would see a light flickering inside, knowing that this curious man was in there, shrouded in mystery.

I was not the only one who was curious. Józef became more and more a local celebrity. He was the focus of a Facebook group with over 4000 members. He was even seen as a holy man by many members of the local Asian community. Several would regularly pay their respects to him. One such example included a Sikh woman who travelled 6 miles every morning for 13 years to leave a flask of hot tea and a sandwich outside his tent. Its sad to think that he never had any idea of just how many people cared about him.

Just over a year ago he died at the ripe old age of 86, spending over 40 years in his tent. So much is still unknown about him.

In a society that is increasingly tolerant of newly accepted norms, many are intolerant of the homeless. I find it heartening to see a government institution be so understanding and respectful of an individual case such as this. I also find it heartening to think of how the local community in Wolverhampton accepted Józef for who he was.

The next time you walk past a homeless person on the street, just think about what their story could be. It certainly made me think a little differently. Maybe if we all think a little different we can help make things better for everyone.

  • jaduncan

    Yes, it’s impressive that the council could work with humanity…indeed, I detect an implicit link back to the principles of ubuntu you were previously discussing.

    It’s good to remeber ubuntu in the wider, Mandela-clip sense too.

  • mrben

    As with many areas, the small arsehole minority have a tendency to be more vocal and recognised than the majority of genuinely nice, honest people. The homeless are no exception.

  • Vincent

    Very touching indeed. And very fortunate that the local authorities could just do this – they might just as well be buried in protocols and red tape preventing them from doing anything for him.

  • Rob Taylor

    This guy seems to have the same history as my grandmother and grandfather. My grandfather was living in Lida in what is now Belarus. My grandmother, Genowefa Sliva was living in Rumosz near Sokal in L’viv, which is now in the Ukraine. They we’re both in Russian concentration NKVD camps but in 1941 Stalin dissolved all agreements with nazi Germany and agreed to the forming of a Polish army lead by General Anders, recruited from NKVD camps. (see This army subsequentlyt came under the control of the British. After the war, they were given the option to become British citizens.

    When the conscription lists for Anders Army become available, it’ll be very interesting to see if Józef is there.

  • gouchi

    Thanks for sharing.

    Other detail :

  • http://http// Janne

    I fully sympathize with the plight of the homeless; there’s many in Japan already and many more to come with the deteriorating economy.

    Which is why I feel calling Jozef “homeless” is not quite right. He, after all, was living at a fixed address, by conscious, deliberate choice, with the blessing of the authorities and with their (well-placed) assistance; and with, by your description, an informal social support network that would be the envy of most of us. He sounds like a fortunate man, and the fact that his walls were canvas rather than brick is a mere detail.

    A true homeless person has none of the above things. Despised by their surroundings, chased and harassed by the local authorities, and with nobody to care if they live or die, their situation is much different. And that is even if they actually get to stay within four rigid walls from time to time.

  • jono


    Thanks for the comments. You make a valid point – I guess Józef really was not homeless. I do sympathize with his struggles in life still.

    I also still sympathize with the struggle of the homeless and even if Józef is not facing the same struggles as other homeless people, I guess he just focused my mind on the issue.

  • jono


    Thanks for the reply. That must have been a hugely stressful and worrying time for your grandparents. These stories are always hugely sad to hear, but it seems generations don’t learn.

    Lets hope 2009 brings more peace to the world.

  • Andrew Zajac

    Józef probably had mental disease. Regardless of whether he was born with it or it was inflicted upon him during captivity, it’s still very likely the cause of his homelessness.

    The vast majority of homeless people suffer from mental disease and the moral/ethical struggle our society has to deal with is whether you force these patients to undergo treatment or you let them chose to refuse. Usually, the treatment involves medication which renders their minds dull and slow.

    Imagine an existence without emotions, passion or drive.

    Sadly, with all the wonderful things our society can accomplish, the tools we have to treat mental disease are not very effective.

  • jono


    I agree. In terms of homelessness, I have often thought that there must be a grass-roots community-driven thing we can do to improve the situation. Although it is unlikely that such a grassroots campaign could cure the mental illness, I just have this feeling that there is something that we could do to improve the welfare of these people. This could be as simple as helping to feed them, clean clothes or some other gestures that makes a large group of seemingly unloved people feel a bit more cared for.

  • Dick Morrell

    When I was a teenager in my home town was a harmless and friendly “tramp” who entertained the public while battling personal demons, he’d come into the church while my dad was preaching in the pulpit and get out his guitar and strum much to the bemusement of the congregation with their blue rinses. Once aged 13 I was with friends in a takeaway and didn’t have the right change and he insisted on helping – and paying for everyone elses. Never a bad word to say to anyone he was found frozen to death one morning.

    After his death it came out that he’d lost a brother to drug abuse, but that they had both had expensive classical educations, he had a good degree, a previous career in banking, and when he died left an estate valued at over £250k in the bank that he’d sat on and never touched.

    There is a fine line between perceived neuro typical behaviour and feeling an outcast and there is little to no support in this country to provide the help needed – Shelter is a start. But during the first week of December stuck in traffic in the town where I live my other half pointed at a converted transit van dishing out soup and rolls to the needy. The line was easily over a hundred deep. Makes you realise how lucky we are.

  • matthew

    Thank you for posting this moving story. I think the way the locals dealt with Jozef was very compassionate and a wonderful example.

  • rvl

    I was living in WrocÅ‚aw for a while and most days there was an English bloke there singing Frank Sinatra songs on the main square. Nice guy apparently, I forget his name, but he would have had to be a little mad. Nonetheless he’s become a minor celebrity in the city. I wonder if he lives in a tent as well?

  • pabs

    Thanks a lot for posting this story

  • just this once, i’ll leave my name out

    Some people have mentioned ‘mental disease’ in the comments. Often when someone is categorized as having a ‘mental disease’, they are really just healthy, natural people, who happen to be functioning in a way that does not fit in smoothly with the society around them. Speaking as someone who has been deemed mentally ill by the society around me, I have come to realize that there is in fact nothing wrong with me other than that I listened for a long time to the commonly accepted standards for what constitutes a “healty” human life, when in fact those standards is what is sick, many societal norms are sick, and many people are deemed to be sick due to not fitting in with those norms — I am not ‘mentally ill’, I was merely suffering because I believed that I was mentally ill, because I appeared to be so when compared to the norms and values of the society around me — but we live in a society with so many dehumanizing values, and it’s only natural that someone with a healthy mind may appear to be mentally sick, when a sick society is used as the basis of comparison!

    Thanks for sharing this story, Jono, and thanks your posts about the spirit of Ubuntu, both in the distro and philosophy sense. I can recommend listening to the song “Ubuuntu” by Lucky People Center, which contains some soundbites of Desmond Tutu speaking about ubuntu, and his words are beautiful and inspiring. [you can find it on the soulseek file sharing network (‘nicotine’ is a good linux client for it, and it’s in the repositories), and trust me, it’s okay to download and share their music. they would not mind that, they are not making music for money but to spread a message and change the world.]

    [ha, i just discovered that there’s a short thread about that song on the ubuntu forums: ]

    And if anyone is interested in some further thoughts along the lines of what I talked about in the first paragraph…: listen to :-)

  • Andrew

    I am from Wolverhampton ad go to Wolverhampton Uni, you post makes me feel instantly connected in some way, as i stumbled to your blog by accident.

  • jono

    Cool. What are you studying?

  • Jonathan Gregory

    I’ve lived in Wolverhampton all my life and was well aware of this individual and I think the way he was treated is a tribute to our council. I guess the story demonstrates the spirit of community that is being embraced and evangelised by Ubuntu/Canonical users and will hopefully result in better experiences for all concerned.

  • tomekm

    Jono Great Story because it reminds me of more polish people like him who went to UK after or during the WW2 and ended in similar circumstances. By The way Stawinoga is polish name and Józef is classic in poland too. I have a friend with name Stawinoga but this guy is not from my friend’s fammily i guess. Again, great story and again well writen.

  • nixternal

    This really got me to thinking. In Chicago we have a lot of homeless people who either sleep on a bench, under a viaduct, in a box, or wherever. I wonder how well tents would work, with some sleeping bags. Only problem is more than likely the morons that run around the city will steal them. Still a very interesting and very heartening story that really got me thinking about our homeless here in Chicago. Thanks!

  • Bob

    This is by far the most interesting blog post you’ve written in years.

  • jono

    Thanks, Bob!

  • mje

    I think he was damning you with faint praise!

  • JoshPanter

    Having experienced homelessness, and the subsequent intolerance of the “better people”, as well as the embrace of others and their desire to accept and understand someone who doesn’t always care to live and play as the others do, I really appreciate this post. Some will embrace the so called eccentric choices of others, while some will disregard them as mentally disturbed, or threats, or in some way lessen them by definition. The way that the community around Jozef approached him is deeply inspiring.

  • Schalken

    So what exactly did this hermit ever do for anybody?

  • jaduncan

    Troll. And in this case, reminded people that they are linked by a bond of common humanity.