At least 12,000 people experiencing homelessness are missing out on drug and alcohol services ever year – and that shocking figure has urged St Mungo’s to call on the government to end the resulting “health crisis”.
The charity’s comprehensive investigation into how rough sleeping is linked to substance abuse, summed up in their Knocked Back report, uncovered how scaled back public health funding has removed a life-saving safety net for those living on the streets.
The study concluded that rough sleeping and drug and alcohol problems are closely associated with traumatic experiences and isolation which precede someone’s first night sleeping rough.
And with funding for drug and alcohol services slashed by more than a quarter since 2015/16, the end result is there for all to see.
I went on to work in drug and alcohol services, before taking on the role as service manager of the Bournemouth outreach team. I’ve been sober nearly 11 years. I drive home to my wife, my stepchildren and my dog – and I’ve never been happier
It’s a familiar story for Andrew Teale, a St Mungo’s outreach manager based in Bournemouth. His role at the charity came after they helped him to end a spell of five years spent homeless and battling the booze.
He said: “I have seen first-hand the issues explored in this research. I’m a service manager working with people sleeping rough in Bournemouth and Poole. But I also know because I have lived it.
“I spent five years homeless, living for months on a makeshift bed in the woods, going down to the garage at the end of the road to get my alcohol. I was arrested, sectioned, ordered to get treatment many times – but nothing seemed to work.
“Eventually I spent 13 months in a local authority rehab and began to rebuild my life, volunteering with people who were homeless.
“I went on to work in drug and alcohol services, before taking on the role as service manager of the Bournemouth outreach team. I’ve been sober nearly 11 years. I drive home to my wife, my stepchildren and my dog – and I’ve never been happier.
“This is such a vital issue, yet often stigmatised and misunderstood. Having worked and lived both homelessness and drugs and alcohol, I know how closely related those experiences are, and how difficult it can be to navigate a stretched and under resourced system. When it works people’s lives are transformed, like mine.”
There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
St Mungo’s cited the Office for National Statistics’ official homeless death figures that revealed half of the 726 deaths in 2018 were alcohol or drug related while the number of homeless deaths caused by drug poisoning rose by 55 per cent between 2017 and 2018. Many of these deaths could have been prevented by intervention from services.
With six in 10 people sleeping rough having a drug or alcohol problem – up from five in 10 four years ago – the charity is calling for the Government to protect and increase spending on drug and alcohol treatment.
They also want ministers to follow up pledges already made to end rough sleeping within five years with a commitment to end deaths on the streets backed up by a clear, independent plan to review trends, make recommendations and hold agencies to account.
People sleeping rough have often experienced violence, abuse & neglect throughout their lives.
— St Mungo's (@StMungos) January 29, 2020
These efforts, along with more joined-up services, should be included in an updated cross-government strategy that recognises the issue as a public health crisis and plans of integrated pathways of housing, treatment and support.
“This is a neglected health crisis that requires rapid action. Our research shows that people who have already faced traumatic experiences throughout their lives are being turned away from life-saving treatment just when they need it most,” said St Mungo’s chief executive Howard Sinclair.
“This needs urgent government action. This means a comprehensive review of every death, a personalised fund to help everyone access life-saving treatment services quickly, and funding increases for integrated treatment, support and accommodation services.”