Following the news of an increase in deaths among people who are sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation, Rory Weal, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer for St Mungo’s, discusses what must be done to combat this rising trend.
Today we heard the news that 726 people died while sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation last year. This is a 22% increase compared to 2017, the highest year to year increase since the Office for National Statistics (ONS) started publishing these figures six years ago.
These figures should shock and shame all of us. The figure of 726 means that someone dies while homeless every 12 hours – that’s the equivalent of two people a day.
Moreover, these deaths are overwhelmingly premature and entirely preventable – the mean age of death was 45 for men, and 43 for women. To have so many people die in this way, in such discomfort and distress, failed by so many is nothing short of a national tragedy.
But this is not the sort of tragedy where we simply pause, pay our respects, then move on, bemoaning the wretched luck of a particularly unfortunate group of people. It is the product of collective choices and decisions, and should be regarded as a national emergency, one which needs urgent action.
The context to these figures is that rough sleeping has risen by 165% since 2010, the result of years of funding cuts which have devastated crucial services and the unavailability of genuinely affordable housing. More people are sleeping rough, which exposes them to a greater range of harms – a premature death being the greatest.
To stop people dying on the streets we have to stop them living on the streets. We need to build homes, to make the welfare system truly work for the most vulnerable and to fund homelessness services to help people find a way off the streets, and out of danger, for good.
And we must also tackle the direct causes of death – the figures show the majority of deaths are so-called ‘deaths of despair’, the result of drugs, alcohol or suicide. Drug related deaths in particular have soared in recent years, and account almost entirely for the increase we’ve seen last year.
Just as housing and homelessness services have become harder to access, so too have drug and alcohol services, leaving many people languishing with serious drug and alcohol problems and going without the support they desperately need. We still have a situation where most of these deaths will never result in a Safeguarding Adults Review, the legal review process for deaths which have occurred due to abuse or neglect. As a result vital lessons are going unlearned. We now need a new national system to review each and every death.
As we consider what we need to do to tackle this emergency, we must remember each and every life that has been prematurely lost in recent years.
At St Mungo’s, to commemorate those people who died while homeless, our clients, alongside staff and supporters, have together hand made hundreds of origami flowers, in tribute to lives needlessly lost.
The most fitting tribute of all, however, would be meaningful government action to prevent future tragedies.