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Counting the dead: What now for Britain’s homelessness crisis?

After it was revealed 449 people died homeless in Britain in just one year, ministers admitted they need to get a grip. Liam Geraghty reports

The news that 449 homeless people died in the UK last year triggered shock – and a commitment by authorities to do more.

As part of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Dying Homeless project, their reporters spent an entire year digging into the reasons why homeless people can just disappear. They contacted charities, hospitals and journalists (including those at The Big Issue), attended funerals and spoke to families and friends to arrive at that final, shocking statistic.

Alarmingly however, the true figure, published to mark World Homeless Day on October 10, is thought to be significantly higher. After The Big Issue broke the news of the UK-first count there was a major Channel 4 News report, with a detailed look at the life of Big Issue vendor Fabian Bayet, who died in July. There was also widespread news coverage in major outlets, including the BBC, The Guardian and The Times.

Communities Secretary James Brokenshire responded by calling for more Safeguarding Adult Reviews to be carried out into deaths after branding the figures “utterly shocking”.

“It does not reflect the modern Britain that I know, that we need to be,” the man responsible for implementing the government’s Rough Sleeping Strategy told Channel 4.

But the most telling news came from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Ben Humberstone, ONS deputy director for health analysis and life events, penned a blog outlining how the office is in the final stages of producing its own “experimental” statistics by the end of the year.

Humberstone’s blog was shared on the eve of World Homeless Day.

The ONS statisticians have been taking a different approach to the Bureau since starting work on the project in November last year.  They have been poring over death certificates looking to identify wording implying the person was homeless, such as “no fixed abode” or hostel addresses. And while the Bureau’s dataset will not be used, it will help “develop the most accurate method of identifying all deaths that should be counted,” Humberstone said.

“There has been increasing public interest in homelessness, an important problem affecting some of the most vulnerable people in society, but which is difficult to measure as well as to solve. To date, there are no official figures on deaths of homeless people. The problem is two-fold: firstly, that homelessness takes many different forms, and secondly, that there is no specific way of recording homelessness at death registration.”

Meanwhile, Shelter used World Homeless Day to highlight another group particularly at risk – single mothers. The charity found 66 per cent of homeless families in England were headed up by single mothers, despite being only 22 per cent of the general population. And Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the SNP conference she was giving a £6.5m boost to the Social Bite social enterprise to bolster its Housing First programme in Scotland. It offers rough sleepers a sustainable pathway off the streets and into long-term housing.

It’s a welcome move in the battle to offer homeless people dignity, and to support them before they fall through the cracks – both in life and in death.

Image: Big Issue vendor Fabian Bayet, who died in July