New Government data shows how deaths of homeless people – including to Coronavirus – continue to rise. Sian Norris reports

The number of homeless people dying has increased by 54% since records began in 2013, with two homeless people dying every day in 2021 – or 741 people in total.

The data, published by the Office for National Statistics, also found that the number of homeless people dying had risen by 64 compared to 2020. The average age at death was 43 for women and 45 for men. While women are more likely to be homeless, with domestic abuse a major trigger of homelessness, men are more likely to be sleeping rough. In 2021, more than 2,000 men were sleeping rough on a single night in England, compared to 320 women. 

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of the housing charity Shelter, responded to the figures by saying: “A freezing doorway, a bed in an emergency hostel, or a flimsy tent are no substitute for a home. It is utterly awful and unacceptable that two people die every day without anywhere safe to live – and this number is rising”.

Matt Downie, Crisis Chief  Executive, said: “Behind each of these statistics is a human being; an individual who tragically spent their last moments homeless. We know that being homeless often means feeling like you have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. It’s difficult to bear, but that will have been the experience of some of the real people behind these figures”.  

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Coronavirus and Everyone In

The number of homeless people dying of COVID-19 doubled in 2021 compared to 2020 (26 to 13). During the start of the pandemic, the Everyone In campaign supported 37,000 people experiencing the worst forms of homelessness into temporary accommodation, in order to stop the spread of Coronavirus and reduce the number of deaths.

However, the scheme was not permanent and 23% of people initially placed in emergency accommodation were no longer being accommodated by February 2021. While some may have gone on to more secure housing, others will have returned to rough sleeping or sofa surfing.

The figures come during a cost of living crisis, with Neate saying that Shelter’s “frontline services are seeing more people who have run out of options, are facing homelessness, and the very real possibility of sleeping rough. This is going to be one of the toughest winters yet as so many people battle rising rents while housing benefit stays frozen”.

Rising rents, energy bills and food prices risked pushing 1.7 million households into homelessness, according to analysis from the charity Crisis, published in August this year. The estimate was based on the energy cap rising to £4,500 next year – since then, the Government has intervened with support for struggling families. The number of households at risk of homelessness has increased by 23% over the past 12 months.

“Our services are gearing up for an incredibly challenging winter, with thousands facing the brutality of homelessness as the rising cost of living pushes them to breaking point,” said Downie. “These dire economic times must not lead to more people falling through the cracks and dying needlessly on our streets”.


The Impact of Austerity

Between 2010-2017, homelessness increased as austerity and changes to the welfare system stripped away the social safety net and led to overall increases in poverty. Rough sleeping grew by 165%, while homelessness, in general, rose by 74%

The Government confirmed to Byline Times that according to the latest official statistics, the number of people sleeping rough is down 49% since 2017.

Austerity has not just impacted homelessness rates, however. Cuts to local authority budgets have seen reduced spending on services that can be linked to homelessness, such as support for substance abuse issues. During the austerity era, overall spending on drug and alcohol services was cut by 15%, with some councils cutting funding by 40% and only 10 councils in the country increasing funding on substance abuse support.

Almost two in five (259) deaths of homeless people were related to drug poisoning in 2021, while a further 71 were “alcohol-specific” deaths. The Government has announced up to £186.5 million for the next three years of the Rough Sleeping Drug and Alcohol Treatment Grant. 

After an Era of Austerity, What is Left to Cut?

Sian Norris

Mental health services also faced real-term cuts during austerity. According to a TUC report published, while the total amount of income received by mental health trusts in England rose in 2016–17, once inflation is taken into account it becomes clear that they actually received £105 million less than in 2011–12. The number of NHS mental health beds is down 25% compared to 2010 levels. An estimated 99 homeless lives were lost to suicide in 2021.

The Government confirmed that the NHS has committed up to £30 million over the Long-Term Plan (2019-2024) to improve the mental health of people who sleep rough which will help to ensure better access to specialist mental health support.

“There is no excuse for this shameless suffering,” said Downie. “For years we have been calling on the UK Government to expand the safeguarding system used to investigate the deaths of vulnerable adults to include everyone who has died while street homeless. This must be acted upon so we can learn lessons from these tragic deaths”.  

A Government spokesperson said: “Good progress has been made towards tackling rough sleeping. But we also know how tough many people are finding things in the current economic climate. These statistics are another reminder that there is still much more to be done. Our goal remains to keep people off the streets in the first place and to get those on the streets the help they need. We are providing £2 billion over the next three years to tackle homelessness”.

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