Housing

Almost 700 homeless people died in 2020 - and real figure could be higher

Last year 688 people died while experiencing homelessness in England and Wales. The figure represents a drop from 2019 but experts warn some deaths may have been missed due to the Everyone In scheme.

The number of people who died while homeless in England and Wales dropped to 688 in 2020 - but the true figure may be higher. Image: Anthony Luvera

Almost 700 people died while experiencing homelessness in England and Wales in 2020, according to new official figures, a number which authorities warned could underestimate the true scale of the problem due to the pandemic.

New research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows there were an estimated 688 deaths of homeless people in England and Wales last year, 90 (11.6%) fewer than the 778 in 2019.

The ONS says this is likely down to the Everyone In scheme, which the government introduced to shield rough sleepers from Covid. It warned the number of deaths may be lower because an individual’s housing status was harder to identify, rather than a reduction in deaths overall, though a genuine drop was not ruled out.

Only 13 deaths identified by ONS were attributed to Covid-19 while deaths from drug poisoning, alcohol or suicide accounted for more than 60 per cent of the total.

Rick Henderson, CEO at Homeless Link, the national membership charity for frontline homelessness organisations in England, told The Big Issue the figures showed the Westminster government was correct to treat homelessness as a health issue during the pandemic with the introduction of Everyone In.

“Any death of someone experiencing homelessness is a tragedy,” he said. “These figures represent a diverse range of people, let down by systems that should protect them. Each death must be investigated to learn how to prevent people losing their lives too early in the future.

He added: “This shows the impact of providing stable accommodation, whilst treating homelessness as a health issue. We must continue to harness this approach moving forward.”

Previous research from the University College London showed the Everyone In scheme saved 266 lives during the first three months of lockdown in 2020.

Shelter chief executive Polly Neate also called for Everyone In to return, warning “the government must step in again” to provide funding for councils to offer emergency accommodation for everyone sleeping rough this winter.

Meanwhile, Crisis counterpart Jon Sparkes said the safeguarding review system to investigate deaths must be expanded while he also called for a long-term strategy focusing on preventing homelessness. Sparkes said: “We cannot let the lessons from each of these tragic and often preventable deaths carry on going unlearnt.”

Big Issue founder Lord John Bird has also called for action to prevent homeless deaths, warning that “if we don’t take action now we are set to lose far more lives on the streets”.

“That is why we are calling on the government to Stop Mass Homelessness,” Lord Bird added. “We cannot leave people to die, we are the sixth richest country in the world, we can and must do better.”

In total, 19 of the people who died while experiencing homelessness were under the age of 25 according to the ONS figures. Balbir Chatrik, the director of policy at youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, said that figure could rise without more funding. “With more young people than ever facing homelessness, and little concerted investment in age-appropriate services, the risk for tragedy is significant,” said Chatrik.

The fall in deaths in England and Wales is in stark contrast to events in Scotland, where deaths of people experiencing homelessness rose by almost 20 per cent in the same period. Jon Sparkes, chief executive of homelessness charity Crisis, called the Scottish figures “shocking” and “unacceptable”.

“We need to learn from these failings and put in place measures to stop this from happening again,” he said. “We’ve long known how damaging homelessness can be for someone’s health and it is vital that we act now to prevent people from losing their homes.” 

He called on public services and health bodies to ask about patient’s housing situation and to offer help and support where possible.

“Homelessness is an injustice, but it is also a public health emergency,” he added. “Far too many lives have been cut short and many of these deaths will have been avoidable. That is unacceptable.”

The numbers in England and Wales are the lowest since 2014, and the vast majority of deaths in all three countries were among men, consistent with previous years.

Alongside the official count, Museum of Homelessness (MOH) also run their own grassroots count known as the Dying Homeless project.

Originally started by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in 2017, the project uses a different approach to the ONS and National Records of Scotland. Rather than using death registrations and modelling, the MOH count is sourced through freedom of information requests, news stories and public submissions, with strict verification processes for each submission.

MOH released their 2020 count for deaths in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland back in February 2021, revealing that 976 people had died without a secure home across the four nations.

Reacting to the ONS figures, MOH co-founder Jess Turtle told The Big Issue the group had identified 748 deaths in England and Wales in 2020.

“We hope that the ONS findings are not used to brush problems in the system under the carpet and that we can all still strive to improve services. We owe that to everyone who died in 2020,” said Turtle.

“We urge everyone to remember that behind each statistic was a real person, who had people who cared about them. The statistics released today re-emphasise to us that hundreds of lives have been lost this year, and we remember each person with love.”

The ONS’ announcement comes as Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, launched his winter fundraising campaign for homeless charities. Writing in The Big Issue, he said: “My hope now is that the government works with us and does whatever it takes to end rough sleeping in our capital for good. A roof over our heads should be a basic human right – and no-one should be left out in the cold this Christmas.“

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