1 October 2019

A record number of homeless people died last year, in the biggest increase in deaths since reporting began, amid warnings fatalities are likely to be even higher in 2019.

Charities and MPs have said austerity and cuts to services are driving a worsening homelessness crisis, as figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that an estimated 726 homeless people died in England and Wales in 2018. This is a 22% rise from 2017 and the biggest increase since the data was first collected in 2013.

The shadow housing secretary, John Healey, asking an urgent question in the Commons about deaths among homeless people, said: “This shames us all … This demands a response from the prime minister himself tomorrow in his party conference speech.”

Jon Sparkes, the chief executive of the charity Crisis, said: “It is heartbreaking that hundreds of people were forced to spend the last days of their lives without the dignity of a secure home.”

His words were echoed by the housing minister Luke Hall: “There is no shying away from these statistics. They are heartbreaking.”

Those collecting data for the Museum of Homelessness said the number of deaths for 2019 is likely to be even higher. “We do think that [from what we have recorded so far] we will really see an increase again, so the picture will get bleaker,” said Jessica Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness.

The biggest increase was in drug-related deaths, which rose by 55% compared with 2017. Figures showed there were 131 deaths related to opiate poisoning, predominantly involving heroin and morphine. There was also a doubling in deaths related to cocaine, increasing from 15 in 2017 to 30 in 2018. 

Further concern has also been raised about the dangers of substances such as the synthetic cannabinoid spice, also known as black mamba, which experts say is ravaging vulnerable communities. “It features in quite a few of the stories we have been researching … also from our work on the ground … a lot of people have overdosed on spice,” Turtle said.

She said that making psychoactive substances illegal in May 2016 had made the situation worse, driving spice into an underground market that produced a stronger blend of the drug.

Turtle said people were mainly dying from drug and alcohol misuse, which is directly linked to a cut in services. “A lot of these deaths are preventable,” she said.

She said austerity was having a direct impact, citing an example in Middlesbrough, where it was reported this year that homeless people had died since a council redeployed staff helping them. A council team had provided “intensive support” for rough sleepers, but its three staff were moved in April.

At a cafe for homeless people in Middlesbrough, Susan Gill said nine of her regulars had died since April. Gill, who runs the Neighbourhood Welfare homeless hub, said the future for homeless people in the area was “incredibly bleak”.

“I have literally just had someone taken away in an ambulance because he had overdosed,” she said. “They come in here for a warm meal and some tea but their lives are so chaotic. They are just desperate and there is no help out there. Some don’t want help but others really, really do and that’s why it is so tragic because we can save them if we just tried,” she added.

Gill said the introduction of universal credit had plunged many into poverty, leaving them vulnerable to homelessness and mental health problems. “Sometimes they deliberately turn to drugs and take overdoses because there is literally no hope for them. We need more services which intervene before they get to that point, the point where they decide they can’t come back,” she added.

In Manchester, where the problem is particularly acute, the figures suggest 19 people died. This ranks the city with the third-highest mortality rate in the country. John Leech, leader of the Liberal Democrats in Manchester, said the figures were deeply worrying.

“Perhaps most tragically, these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. Walk down any city centre street and you will see people with next to nothing to their name.

“Today’s figures don’t just highlight the gross incompetence and lack of priorities from local and national politicians, nor is it just a complete embarrassment, but it exposes the deeply worrying, critical and consistent failure of a local and national system that simply doesn’t care,” he added.

Birmingham had the highest number of deaths recorded by any local authority in the country with 23 homeless people dying in just one year – an increase of 18 people from the previous year.

Liam Byrne, the Labour MP for Hodge Hill in the city, said: “This is a moral emergency and none of us can continue to stand by – we need urgent action.”

Most of the deaths in 2018 were among men, accounting for 641 estimated deaths and 88% of the total. The mean age at death was 45 years for men and 43 for women, far lower than the mean age of death for the general population which is 76 years and 81 years for men and women respectively.

Two in five deaths of homeless people were related to drug poisoning in 2018 (294 estimated deaths), and the number of deaths from this has increased by 55% since 2017.

London and the north-west had the highest numbers of deaths in 2018, with 148 (20% of the total number) and 103 (14% of the total number) estimated deaths of homeless people respectively.

The figures included rough sleepers and people using emergency accommodation such as shelters and hostels.

A government spokesperson said: “Every single death on our streets is one too many and these statistics are a sombre reminder that there is still much more to do to tackle homelessness and end rough sleeping for good.

“Drugs can devastate lives, ruin families and damage communities, which is why we are undertaking a comprehensive review which will help protect the most vulnerable – including homeless individuals – from the harm that drugs cause and give them a chance to recover and turn their lives around.

Source: The Guardian