THE deaths of 449 homeless people in the past year is “nothing short of horrifying” and show it’s time homelessness was treated as a national emergency, says Crisis.
The charity made its comments in response to an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) and Channel 4, which revealed the shocking body count and shared some of the human stories behind the numbers.
“We found out about the deaths of hundreds of people, some as young as 18 and some as old as 94,” says the BIJ report. “They included a former soldier, a quantum physicist, a travelling musician, a father of two who volunteered in his community, and a chatty Big Issue seller. The true figure is likely to be much higher… They died from violence, drug overdoses, illnesses, suicide and murder, among other reasons. One man’s body showed signs of prolonged starvation.”
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said he was saddened and shocked “beyond belief” at the deaths. “To think of just one person dying due to the consequences of poverty and homelessness is appalling, but to learn of the sheer scale of those who’ve lost their lives in the past year is nothing short of horrifying. This is a wake-up call to see homelessness as a national emergency,” he added.
“Behind these statistics are 449 unique human beings, ranging from teenagers to people in their 90s – a gardener, an astrophysicist, musicians, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers. Not only will 449 families or significant others have to cope with their loss, they will have to face the injustice that their loved one was forced to live the last days of their life without the dignity of a decent roof over their head, and a basic safety net that might have prevented their death. No-one deserves this.
“We know that sleeping rough is dangerous, but this investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reminds us it’s deadly. Those sleeping on our streets are exposed to everything from sub-zero temperatures, to violence and abuse, and fatal illnesses. They are 17 times more likely to be a victim of violence, twice as likely to die from infections, and nine times more likely to commit suicide. What’s worse, these figures might even be an underestimate.
“The magnitude of this loss affects every one of us because it reflects on our society and on our system for letting it happen in the first place. Not only has it happened, but troublingly, it has happened unchecked. We must all take responsibility to hold society and our system to account and ensure it doesn’t continue to happen across our country.”
Since the BIJ’s report revealed that no official statistics on homeless deaths were gathered, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has announced it has begun compiling experimental data on the deaths of homeless people in England and Wales, which it intends to publish later this year.
“The figures will act as a measure for the number of rough sleepers that die each year and will improve understanding of how and why homeless people die,” the ONS said.
Ben Humberstone, ONS deputy director for health analysis and life events, added: “In order to produce new data, we look at other sources of information from a variety of organisations, government departments and stakeholders.
“In this case, we have looked at a crowdsourced database set up by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism in partnership with Channel 4 News and compared that information with our own figures, collected from death registrations. This is to find out whether it would be possible to produce accurate estimates of the deaths of homeless people, their characteristics and what they have died of.
“Information gathered by outside organisations like these is not used for our official statistics, but it helps us develop the most accurate method of identifying all the deaths that should be counted.”
Sparkes has welcomed the ONS’s move to begin gathering data and publish the figures to record homeless deaths.
“We hope this leads to a more systematic approach from Government, but this must go further,” he said. “The Safeguarding Adult Review (SAR) system, currently used to investigate the deaths of vulnerable adults, should be extended to include all people who have died while homeless.
“This will allow us to have a more accurate picture of the number of people who die on our streets, and will give the authorities, councils and homelessness services valuable information that could help them prevent the deaths of rough sleepers in the future.
“But ultimately, we must urge the Government to do what it takes to end rough sleeping – and all forms of homelessness – once and for all. We know it can be done, and in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, there is no excuse for this tragedy to carry on.”