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Tuesday, 09 October 2018

'Nothing short of national scandal' as 449 people died homeless in last 12 months

Written by Tess de la Mare

At least 449 people died homeless in the UK in the last year, a nationwide investigation has found.

The research, conducted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, is believed to be the first attempt to monitor the death toll among the homeless community.

It has prompted the Office of National Statistics to begin work on official figures for homelessness deaths.

Working with Channel 4 News, the Bureau collected data from charities, outreach organisations and local journalists across the country to reach the figure.

The death toll could be significantly higher, as there is no official definition of homelessness used by local authorities across the UK.

The definition used by the Bureau included rough sleepers, those in emergency accommodation such as hostels and B&Bs and sofa surfers.

It also included those registered as officially homeless and awaiting housing by the Housing Executive in Northern Ireland.

Among the dead were a former soldier, a physicist, a travelling musician, a Big Issue seller and a community volunteer.

Three men's bodies were so badly decomposed by the time they were were discovered they needed forensic testing to identify them.

Causes of death included assault, drug overdoses, illness, suicide and at least one's body showed signs of prolonged starvation.

In one week 14 people died, the research team found.

From the 348 of the dead where ages were known, the average age of death for men was 49 years old and 53 for women.

The deceased ranged in age from 18 to 94 years old.

Howard Sinclair, chief executive of homelessness charity St Mungo's, said: "These figures are nothing short of a national scandal. These deaths are premature and entirely preventable."

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: "This is a wake-up call to see homelessness as a national emergency."

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: "Unstable and expensive private renting, crippling welfare cuts and a severe lack of social housing have created this crisis - and at Shelter we see first-hand the suffering it causes: from families trapped in cramped and dingy B&Bs, to those forced to endure the dangers of sleeping rough.

"To prevent more people from having to experience the trauma of homelessness, the government must ensure housing benefit is enough to cover the cost of rents, and urgently ramp up its efforts to build many more social homes."

The ONS said that it is currently producing "experimental" data on the number of deaths among homeless people.

It said the figures would improve understanding of how and why homeless people die.

ONS deputy director for health analysis and life events, Ben Humberstone, said it had seen the database set up by the Bureau and Channel 4 News and compared it with its own figures collected from death registrations.

He said: "Information gathered by outside organisations like these is not used for our official statistics, but it helps us develop the most accurate method of identifying all the deaths that should be counted.

"Although this is a new area of data collection, we have a responsibility to ensure it meets the same high standards of quality, accuracy, confidentiality and security as the rest of our work."

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: "Every death of someone sleeping rough on our streets is one too many and we take this matter extremely seriously.

"We are investing £1.2bn to tackle all forms of homelessness, and have set out bold plans backed by £100m in funding to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and end it by 2027."

Graeme Brown, director of Shelter Scotland, said: "These numbers are both a tragedy and a disgrace and, sadly, probably don't give the full picture of what is happening to homeless people in Scotland."

He added: "Shelter Scotland believes much more should be done to find out what caused these deaths and what can be done to prevent these personal tragedies being repeated across Scotland and indeed throughout the UK."

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Yui Mok / PA Wire.