Featured on the Politics Home website on the 2nd October 2019.
Neil Coyle MP: Two homeless deaths a day is a grim indictment
The number of homeless people dying on our streets has increased by 22%. We must examine why these deaths are happening, and act now to end this miserable, national shame, writes Neil Coyle
The Office for National Statistics revealed yesterday that 726 homeless people died in England and Wales in 2018. Their ‘Deaths of homeless people in England and Wales’ paints a grim picture of 21st century, austere Britain. Two homeless people dying every day is an unacceptable and avoidable outcome following almost a decade of rising rough sleeping and homelessness.
Worryingly, the Government’s response in the Commons has been tepid: restating policies and a programme announced already. The Government launched its Rough Sleeping Strategy last year but is not even scratching the surface as the death toll continues to rise. Despite the launch of the strategy, there has been a 22% increase in people dying on our streets, the highest rise per year since records began.
The Government claimed it was committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022. The total number of rough sleepers is almost 5,000 so the aim requires about 500 rough sleepers to be helped off the streets annually. Permanent solutions are also needed, to prevent rough sleeping from recurring. Sadly, moving off the street often means years of inappropriate, sub-standard temporary accommodation at rip off rates to local authorities. Government funding has not been confirmed for some schemes from next April, so long-term planning and programmes are made impossible.
The Government ‘guestimate’ for the number of rough sleepers last year showed a national drop of 74. The figure is based on a one-night exercise looking for rough sleepers by some councils and a desk-based estimate from many others. No council can possibly check every stairwell, garage, bin shelter or other potential sleeping place in one night. The Government has been asked to provide more accurate figure by the UK Statistics Authority due to the lack of reliability of current estimates. Even if it was accurate, the Government is more than three decades behind schedule to meet its own target. The problem has simply not been given the attention or resources required to deliver results.
Ministers claim the £100m announced last year to help tackle the crisis is providing results. The continued rise in deaths of homeless people suggest it is not nearly reaching far enough. It also represents a fraction of the funding removed from the systems which previously prevented such deaths. Since 2010 cuts to mental health services, drug and alcohol cessation support, councils, and directly from disability benefits and sanctions under Universal Credit for example, have all added to this avoidable situation.
Charities specialising in tackling homelessness including Crisis, Shelter, St Mungo’s, De Paul and many more highlighted the risks of Government policies to increasing the problem, but their views were swept aside in the catastrophic rush to reduce Government spending without considering the full impact of Ministers’ decisions. The tragic human cost exposed by the ONS is a brutal wake-up call that must not be ignored.
Our country is badly failing those who have found themselves tragically caught up in this miserable, national shame. The least we can do is examine why these deaths are happening. The statistics are just the tip of the iceberg and we need the Government to require ‘Adult Safeguarding Reviews’ to occur after the deaths of homeless adults to see if try and prevent further deaths by understanding the contributing factors. Reviews must include NHS bodies, including GPs and mental health trusts where applicable, councils and landlords, the police and other agencies who had contact with the deceased.
It is crucial homeless deaths are not ignored or, worse still, normalised, as the grim death toll continues to rise.
Neil Coyle is Labour MP for Bermondsey & Old Southwark and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Ending Homelessness Group