Deaths among homeless people in the UK have emerged by 80 per cent in two years, it has emerged, prompting calls for urgent action to curb the “distressing” rise in fatalities.
New data shows that more than 1,280 people who were sleeping rough or living in emergency accommodation lost their lives last year, meaning there was a fatality on average every seven hours.
The findings, from the Museum of Homelessness’s Dying Homeless Project – which verified each death by a freedom of information request, coroners’ report, charity or family member – mark a 32 per cent increase on 2020 and a staggering 80 per cent increase since 2019.
The data includes people sleeping rough as well as those placed in emergency accommodation and other insecure settings. Only seven of the fatalities were due to Covid-19, according to the research.
It shows that cuts to mental health and addiction services meant many people did not get the support they need; of the cases in which the researchers confirmed the cause of death, 41 per cent were related to drug and alcohol use and 12 per cent died from taking their own lives.
Ministers are being warned that, with the cost of living crisis set to push 1.3 million people into absolute poverty, many more lives will be put at risk.
The research shows that Glasgow had the highest number of deaths, with the figure hitting 80 last year, compared to 33 in 2020 – a 142 per cent rise. The next highest numbers of fatalities were in Bristol, Westminster and Edinburgh, which recorded 28, 33 and 22 deaths respectively over the year.
Jess Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness, described the figures as a “hammer blow” and blamed “government neglect” for failing to make up for cuts to mental health and addiction support and social housing.
She called on ministers to urgently reverse the £40m cut to discretionary housing payments – which offer financial support to help with rent or housing costs – and end the freeze on local housing allowance rates, which are used to work out housing benefit.
“If the government took this situation seriously, it wouldn’t have slashed the budget for discretionary housing payments by over a third last month – making it harder for councils to offer the people the breathing space they need to avoid homelessness,” she said.
The research indicates that more than 90 per cent of deaths in cases where the person’s situation was known to have occurred after they were placed in insecure accommodation.
This can include a form of unregulated housing called “exempt accommodation”, which guarantees the owner full rent paid directly from each tenant’s benefits, with no official safeguards on standards or safety.
The Independent revealed in 2019 that tens of thousands of homeless people were living in this form of housing across seven UK cities alone – a figure that had emerged by 92 per cent in just four years.
It is estimated that the companies managing exempt accommodation now receive over £80m a year from the public purse.
Campaigners say the lack of oversight means vulnerable people, including domestic abuse victims, care leavers and refugees, are seen as “financial commodities” and placed in properties where there are no safeguards against exploitation or requirement to make sure they are safe and clean.
Matt Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness, called on the government to “urgently regulate these businesses – providing proper oversight so people are protected and our taxes stop funding negligent landlords”.
“Too many people are dying in dangerous accommodation run by unregulated landlords and funded by the taxpayer,” he added.
Matt Downie, chief executive at Crisis, said the rise in deaths was “extremely concerning” and called on ministers to urgently expand the current system used to investigate the deaths of vulnerable adults so that it includes everyone who dies while homeless, to ensure lessons can be learned to help prevent future deaths.
“In the longer-term we need to see a strategy from the Westminster government to provide safe and secure homes and access to healthcare, to end the scandal of people dying while homeless,” he said.
Cllr David Renard, housing spokesperson for the Local Government Association, said the figures were “deeply distressing” and conceded that many of the deaths were preventable.
He said it was “vital” that the UK build on the success of the Everyone In scheme, which saw councils act rapidly to help rough sleepers off the streets during the pandemic.
“For that to happen, we need a cross-departmental government plan to tackle homelessness with long-term investment in prevention and services to support economically vulnerable people and households to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place,” he said.
“With two in five deaths related to drug poisoning, this highlights the critical need for public health services to be fully funded.”
A government spokesperson said: “Every death on our streets is a tragedy. Our most recent statistics published by the ONS estimated that homeless deaths decreased by 12 per cent in 2020 compared to the previous year.
“Even one death is one too many, which is why councils will receive £2bn over the next three years to support the homeless. We also are working closely with the health and care sector to ensure people sleeping rough get the support they need for substance misuse and mental health assessments.”