We must not let fatalism set in

Rory Weal, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer at St Mungo’s, explains why we’re calling on Government to enact urgent measures to stop the scandal of people dying on the streets

One week ago marked the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster. It was a time to reflect not only on the lives that were lost on that day, but also on how we all respond when faced with a human disaster on that scale.

This week St Mungo’s has been highlighting another human disaster: the rising number of people dying on the streets. It is less visible, more dispersed and slower moving. But it is a disaster nonetheless, when so many people are dying in circumstances that are preventable and shockingly premature.

Data suggests that, in London, someone dies on the streets every fortnight. In the rest of the UK, as many as two people are now dying every week, a rate twice as high as five years ago. The average age of someone who dies sleeping rough is 47 for a man and just 43 for a woman.

What is worse is that these figures are likely to be an underestimate, given that recording deaths is infrequent and not done systematically.

Our new report Dying on the Streets: the case for moving quickly to end rough sleeping looks into these figures in more detail. We found that mental health support needs among people who have died has increased dramatically, from 29% in 2010 to 80% last year.

To find out more about what is going on the ground, we also carried out a national survey of street outreach services earlier this year. The picture that emerged is one in which the number of rough sleepers is growing, at the same time as access to vital service is getting harder. This is creating a perfect storm to which the most vulnerable homeless people are falling victims.

Some of the findings were shocking. 70% of respondents said access to mental health services for people sleeping rough had got harder compared to five years ago, and 64% said this was true for emergency accommodation. The majority of respondents had experienced a death in their area, but only one-quarter of those had any experience of a review being carried out.

In short: there is less help available, people are dying, and these deaths are going ignored.

But statistics don’t capture the most tragic consequence: the sense of acceptance and inevitability which increasingly meets the death of someone sleeping rough. As such tragedies become more commonplace, we come to expect, and sadly, accept them.

We must not let fatalism set in. Dying on the streets should be unthinkable. It is certainly preventable. There are ways to stop this scandal from continuing, but only if the determination and political will is there.

To achieve that end, earlier this week we held a roundtable discussion in Parliament. This was attended by the Minister for Mental Health, MPs, and experts in the field, who all recognised the gravity of the issue and resolved to stop the scandal of deaths on the streets. With the Government’s rough sleeping strategy due for publication next month, now is the time to turn those warm words into firm action.

We are calling for a package of measures to ensure rapid relief from rough sleeping, to get people off the streets and prevent future deaths. This includes access to specialist mental health services, an expansion of emergency accommodation, and full reviews to learn the lessons from every single death that occurs on our streets.

Without such interventions, I fear current trends will worsen, lives will be cut short, and our claims to being a compassionate society will be left in tatters. We hope the Government uses its upcoming rough sleeping strategy to avoid this fate. The price of failure is too high.