The number of homeless people recorded dying on streets or in temporary accommodation has more than doubled over the last five years in the UK, the Guardian can reveal.
With people found dead in supermarket car parks, church graveyards and crowded hostels, the number of deaths has risen year on year, from 31 in 2013 to 70 in 2017. At least 230 people have died over that period.
The figures compiled by the Guardian, which include an average of more than one death a week in 2017, are likely to be a substantial underestimate, as no part of the UK government records homeless death statistics at a national level, and local authorities are not required to count rough sleeper deaths.
According to the Guardian’s figures, the average age of a rough sleeper at death was 43, nearly half the UK life expectancy. Around 90% of those who died in the last five years were men, when the gender was provided.
Experts have put the rise down to a rapidly increasing homeless population, rising rents, welfare cuts and lack of social housing, and have called for the government to take urgent action to address the root causes of poverty.
The sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow brought by Siberian air early in 2018 signalled a continuation of a deadly 2017, with at least 23 homeless deaths on the streets and in temporary accommodation reported by local media so far this year.
In February the death of Marcos Amaral Gourgel drew widespread media attention after he died in freezing weather at Westminster underground station next to the Houses of Parliament.
“These figures are a devastating reminder that rough sleeping is beyond dangerous – it’s deadly, and it’s claiming more and more lives each year,” said Matthew Downie, of the homeless charity Crisis.
He added: “Those sleeping on our streets are exposed to everything from sub-zero temperatures to violence and abuse, and fatal illnesses. They are 17 times more likely to be a victim of violence, twice as likely to die from infections, and nine times more likely to commit suicide. What’s worse, we know these figures are likely to be an underestimate.”
The investigation, which provides the most comprehensive record of homeless deaths in the UK to date, has prompted leading homeless charities to call for more robust statistics on mortality rates, and an extension of the review system used by local government and emergency services to investigate the deaths of vulnerable adults. Currently, homeless deaths are only investigated if there is concern that state agencies could have done more to prevent a death.
The Guardian asked all local authorities in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England how many verified rough sleepers have died in the council’s territory in the last five calendar years, asking for details on age, gender, location and access to homelessness services for each death through a freedom of information act request.
A verified rough sleeper is a homeless person who has been seen rough sleeping by an outreach worker, as described by the homelessness charity St Mungo’s. The request also asked councils to include deaths of verified rough sleepers in temporary accommodation, local authority run and commissioned B&Bs and support housing.
Several councils with large homeless populations where deaths have been reported in local media, including Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, Belfast, Leeds and Southend, either did not respond to the Guardian’s FOI request by the required deadline, or do not record the information.
The Guardian excluded 63 deaths reported by local authorities from the total statistics because they either did not meet the FOI definition, even though they might reasonably meet the public’s understanding of a homeless death, or because the information was not provided by local authorities in an interpretable format.
Greater London is the only part of the UK which records detailed information on its street population through the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (Chain), run by St Mungo’s outreach teams. According to the figures, rough sleeping deaths peaked at 23 in 2014, and reached 21 in 2016, but fell to 16 last year.
Rough sleeping in England has increased for the seventh consecutive year, official figures have show, with at least 4,751 people sleeping rough every night, although the actual figure is widely believed to be much higher.
Petra Salva, the director of rough sleeper services at St Mungo’s, called on the government to mandate safeguarding adult board reviews into every suspected rough sleeper death to establish more robust statistics.
“Investigating deaths will help identify issues around care and where more help is needed to move people off the street and out of danger,” she said.
On Tuesday, the Homelessness Reduction Act came into force, which imposes new legal duties on English councils to prevent and relieve homelessness. While the new laws have been welcomed by campaigners, charities have said the act fails to address the root causes of poverty.
Polly Neate, the CEO of Shelter, said it would be dangerous for the government to see the law change as “job done”, and described the data as a “stain on our national conscience.”
After the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government were sent the figures by the Guardian, a government spokesperson said: “Every death of someone sleeping rough on our streets is one too many.
“We are taking bold action and have committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it altogether by 2027.
“We are investing £1.2bn to tackle all forms of homelessness and earlier this week the Homelessness Reduction Act, the most ambitious legislation in this area in decades, came into force.”
The data was also sent to the Office for National Statistics, who confirmed they do not hold figures on rough sleeper deaths due to the way deaths are reported.
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