Opinion

Why do we accept that people experiencing homelessness die so young?

People experiencing homelessness die, on average, at almost half the age of the rest of the general population. Why do we tolerate it? Homeless Link CEO Rick Henderson explains why we shouldn't.

Homeless deaths tribute London

Campaigners pay tribute to the 976 people who died while homeless in 2020. Credit: Museum of Homelessness/Anthony Luvera

For many people, their 40s is the best decade of their lives. Research shows people’s earning capacity is highest in their 40s, while, if they have children, they are often reaching the semi-independence of adolescence by this point. It’s a time when people have grown more comfortable in themselves, learning from past mistakes but not yet feeling the effects of old age.

Yet, if you are experiencing homelessness, this is the decade in which you are most likely to die. The national average age of death is 79 for men and 82 for women, yet, new statistics released by the ONS today show men experiencing homelessness on average die at 46, while for women it’s 42.

Overall, 688 people died while experiencing homelessness during 2020. This poses the question, why, in one of the richest economies in the world, do we tolerate such a terrible outcome? Why aren’t people lining the streets demanding an end to homelessness?

Some of the answer is based on how we talk about the issue. I regularly visit frontline services and listen to the people accessing them. Through this, I’ve met an extremely diverse array of people from ex-soldiers who have struggled since leaving the army, to refugees who have left war torn countries, to women who have fled abusive partners and many more in between.

Homelessness is an experience not an identity. But too often the people who experience it are branded as ‘homeless people’ or, worse ‘the homeless’ as if they’re one homogenous group. This defines people by what they lack, putting their fragile economic status to the fore and masking their other characteristics in the process.

This is important because how we talk about an issue shapes our reaction to it. For the past few years, the homelessness charity Crisis have been coordinating a project to change the way we write and talk about homelessness.

The project commissions a bi-annual online survey to track the UK publics attitudes towards the issue. The latest findings, released in September of this year, found that individualism “continues to dominate people’s understanding”, with people most likely to cite drug and alcohol abuse as a reason for homelessness.

This is not surprising, given the way large sections of the media often describe people who sleep rough as ‘addicts’, communicating their current situation but very rarely the significant traumas that put them there.

If people think someone’s homelessness is self created, it becomes far easier to turn a blind eye to the issue. At the same time, it leaves the real culprits such as; a huge paucity of social housing, stretched local authority budgets and a welfare system that is difficult to navigate, free from scrutiny.

But I don’t want to universally criticise the media. In fact, we wouldn’t have today’s statistics if it wasn’t for the work of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Dying Homeless project. Between October 2017 and March 2019, they took it upon themselves to count all people who died while homeless in the UK.

This was a collaboration with local reporters, charities and grassroots groups “to make sure the stories of those who die homeless continue to be told.” Since then, projects like The Guardian’s Empty Doorway series have taken this mantle on, with long profiles of those who have lost their lives without a stable home.

These are an example of looking beyond people’s economic situation to tell the stories that lie underneath, of not just dismissing the deaths as people who brought it onto themselves but instead approaching the issue with compassion.

If we want to live in a society free from homelessness, then we must channel this ethos moving forward.

Rick Henderson is the CEO of Homeless Link, the national membership charity for frontline homelessness organisations in England

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