Carla Ecola, the director of the LGBTQ+ homeless shelter The Outside Project, was among the campaigners laying candles on the landmark in memory of homeless deaths. Credit: Anthony Luvera
The number of deaths among people experiencing homelessness increased by more than a third in 2021 and more than 90 per cent of deaths in known circumstances occurred in insecure housing, according to new research.
More than 1,200 people died while experiencing homelessness in 2021, according to the annual count carried out by the Museum of Homelessness’s (MOH) Dying Homeless Project, meaning one person lost their life almost every seven hours.
MOH co-founder Jess Turtle, who runs the project with husband Matt, warned falling funding for housing and support services were among the drivers of homeless deaths and called for mandatory investigations into each death to ensure “lessons are learned”.
“These findings are a hammer blow. It’s heart-breaking to see so many people dying and to feel so helpless in the face of such a serious emergency,” said Jess Turtle. “Government neglect means things keep getting worse with new provision for mental health, addiction and social housing failing to make up for previous cuts.
A total of 1,286 people died while sleeping rough or living in emergency or insecure accommodation last year, the MOH found. That figure represents a rise of a third since 2020 and 80 per cent higher than the first annual figure MOH published in 2019.
“Ultimately, the government can’t fix what it doesn’t understand,” continued Jess Turtle. “There needs to be a confidential enquiry into the deaths of homeless people to allow an honest appraisal of what’s happening to the UK’s most vulnerable people. There should also be mandatory fatality reviews for all local authorities – so lessons can be learned from each death.”
Matt Downie, chief executive of homelessness charity Crisis, also called for deaths to be investigated through the existing safeguarding adult review system.
He also called for a long-term strategy from the Westminster government to “end the scandal” of homeless deaths through safe and secure homes and improved access to healthcare.
Downie said: “The death of just one person is a tragedy, so it is even more heartbreaking and unacceptable that 1,286 people died last year whilst experiencing homelessness. That these people had to spend their last days and hours without a safe, stable home should shame us as a society.
“The fact that there has been an increase on the numbers reported from the previous year is extremely concerning – we cannot see this becoming a continuing trend over the next few years and for even more people to lose their lives.”
Covid-19 played a small role in the number of deaths, which are verified using freedom of information requests, coroner reports or charity and family members, with the virus related to just seven deaths.
In total, more than 40 per cent of deaths were related to alcohol abuse while 12 per cent were due to suicide.
MOH co-founder Matt Turtle said the majority of deaths took place in accommodation – many in supported housing exempt from housing benefit rules that limit rents – rather than on the street.
“Too many people are dying in dangerous accommodation run by unregulated landlords and funded by the taxpayer,” said Matt Turtle. “Our research suggests over 90 per cent of deaths in the cases where we know of a person’s situation occurred after they were placed in insecure accommodation.
“The government needs to urgently regulate these businesses – providing proper oversight so people are protected and our taxes stop funding negligent landlords.”
England accounted for the most deaths – up from 630 in 2020 to 719 last year – while 182 people died in Scotland and 60 people died in Wales.
The figures uncovered a spike of deaths in Northern Ireland with the 325 people who lost their lives in 2021 three times higher than in 2020.
Glasgow saw the highest number of homeless deaths in a local authority – with 80 people losing their lives compared to 33 in 2020 – followed by Bristol, Westminster and Edinburgh.
However, not all areas saw the number of deaths increase. In Manchester the 17 deaths recorded in 2021 was a fall of 13 when compared to 2020 while Stirling, Hull and the London boroughs of Camden and Kensington and Chelsea all saw the number of deaths falling.
But MOH warned a fall in funds for councils to help people with housing costs and a real terms decline in the value of housing benefit could lead to more people falling into homelessness.
Jess Turtle added: “If the government took this situation seriously, it wouldn’t have slashed the budget for discretionary housing payments by over a third last month – making it harder for councils to offer the people the breathing space they need to avoid homelessness.
“Reversing this £40 million cut and ending the freeze on Local Housing Allowance rates should be immediate priorities so that people have a fighting chance of meeting the spike in private rents.”
As well as releasing the count, the Museum of Homelessness will also be joining forces with frontline groups to hold a vigil for the people who lost their lives in 2021 outside Downing Street from 6pm to 8pm on Thursday evening.
The group is also inviting people who can’t attend to light a candle in memory of people who died while homeless to share on social media with the hashtag #MakeThemCount.
As well as the MOH count, there are also official homeless death counts carried out by the Office for National Statistics in England and Wales.
The latest annual ONS count found 688 people died while experiencing homelessness in 2020 using death certificates and statistical modelling, however experts warned the figure could be an underestimate.
The National Records of Scotland uses similar methods to produce an annual count in Scotland. The latest count revealed 256 people died while homeless in Scotland in 2020.
A Westminster government spokesperson said: “Every death on our streets is a tragedy. Our most recent statistics published by the ONS estimated that homeless deaths decreased by 12 per cent in 2020 compared to the previous year.
“Even one death is one too many, which is why councils will receive £2 billion over the next three years to support the homeless. We also are working closely with the health and care sector to ensure people sleeping rough get the support they need for substance misuse and mental health assessments.”
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