A landmark investigation has exposed the deeply harrowing lives faced by homeless people and rough sleepers in the UK, with more than 500 having passed away since October 2017.

The landmark, year-long independent investigation by The Bureau of Independent Journalism found that 544 homeless peolple have died on Britain’s streets since last winter, although they say the true number is likely to be much higher.

Housing Minister James Brokenshire admitted the figures were “utterly shocking”, but rejected allegations that Government policies are behind the growing housing and homelessness crisis.

Mr Brokenshire instead insisted that the “causes of homelessness and rough sleeping are multi-layered and complex”.

“I don’t see it in those terms,” he said – referring to the alleged impact of government policies on low-income and vulnerable people.

“I see it as a combination of concerning elements in terms of addiction, family breakdown issues.

“The thing that struck me over recent months in speaking to some of the LGBT charities in terms of young people, because of their sexuality, being thrown out of home.”

He continued: “The causes of homelessness and rough sleeping are multi-layered and complex and therefore we do need to look at this in that way and ensure that councils and other agencies are getting ahead of this and preventing people becoming homeless in the first place.

“That is the agenda I want to move to in the new year.”

Mr Brokenshire also linked rising homelessness to higher levels of immigration.

His comments come in spite of mounting evidence that Government policies, like cuts to housing benefit and the freeze to working age benefits, are fueling the homelessness epidemic. 

A recent report from the housing charity Shelter warned rising homelessness is due to a ‘combination of unaffordable rents, frozen housing benefits and a severe shortage of social housing’.

Polly Neate, CEO of Shelter, blamed “the perfect storm of spiralling rents, welfare cuts and a total lack of social housing” for causing the increasing numbers of homeless people in the UK.

Seperate research has found that more than 24,000 homeless people will spend this festive season sleeping rough, exposed not only to the harmful elements but also at risk of verbal and physical abuse – and even death.

Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at the homelessness charity Crisis, said: “These statistics are a harrowing reminder of how deadly life on the streets can be.

“As we get closer to Christmas and temperatures are dropping, rough sleepers are facing exposure to dangerous conditions, above and beyond the violence and abuse often experienced when living on the streets.

“It’s a failure of the largest magnitude that in one of the world’s richest nations, people with nowhere to turn are dying.

“This has to stop and the government must put in place a full-scale plan to end homelessness once and for all.

“We also need to see the review system used to investigate the deaths of vulnerable adults expanded to include all cases of people who have died whilst street homeless.

“With this in place, crucial lessons can be learned that help prevent further deaths.

“The Government recently pledged to make this happen, but it is disappointing that no progress has been made to support local authorities to implement this.

“We cannot wait any longer, we need to see action now.”

“Utterly shameful”

The first ever official figures on the number of homeless people who have tragically passed away were published by the Office for National Statistics this week.

The figures reveal that nearly 600 homeless people died in 2017, with more than half attributed to alcohol or drug abuse, or suicide.

According to the statistics, 84% of homeless deaths in 2017 were men and the average age of death was just 44, compared to 76 among the general population.

Ben Humberstone, head of health analysis at the ONS, said: “What’s striking about these figures is how different they are to the general population – 55% of the deaths of homeless people are related to drugs, suicide or alcohol, also known as the diseases of despair, compared to just 3% of deaths from these causes among the general population.”

Labour’s Shadow Housing Minister Melanie Onn said: “These figures are utterly shameful and reflect a complete failure of Conservative policy on housing, which has seen rough sleeping skyrocket since 2010.

“We are one of the richest countries in the world and there is no excuse for people dying on our streets.

“Labour will provide £100m to ensure that everyone has shelter when it becomes dangerously cold.

“We will end rough sleeping within five years to ensure that everyone has a place to call home.”

Last updated on 20 December 2018 to include official homelessness deaths data.