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Homeless people are dying in bins while ministers fiddle the figures

A man was found dead in a commercial bin in Southwark last week. Stories like this one are becoming more common as the government refuses to properly acknowledge the extent of the housing crisis and its impact on rough sleeping.

There have been seven fatalities in the last five years due to people sleeping in bins, according to The Mirror. The story in north Wales focused on two children aged about nine or ten sleeping in a recycling skip narrowly avoiding being tipped into a crusher. The alertness of operatives is crucial it seems, as it is claimed that there were over 100 near-misses of a similar nature in just nine months last year.

If only the government were more alert to the problem, created by its own policies, of rough sleeping. David Cameron and Nick Clegg, followed by Theresa May and now Boris Johnson, have allowed rough sleeping and dangerous situations like these to rocket.

The five-week wait for Universal Credit is known to have contributed to homelessness, yet ministers have repeatedly failed to act on this evidence. Cuts to mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment services and the continued Home Office hostile environment policies axing most help to some families even with British-born children are all having a devastating impact. The failure to build enough council homes at the same time as increasing demand for council services but cutting local authority budgets all compounds the problem and leaves people in desperate situations.

We will know if the government begins to care because it will bother to measure the scale of the problem. Currently, there is only an estimate of rough sleeping. There is no adequate measurement. Ministers claim rough sleeping is falling based on a one-night assessment of the problem. These figures are provided by councils that are already strapped for resources; often submit desk-based guesstimates; and cannot possibly check every street, doorway, stairwell, bin cupboard or commercial bin or recycling skip in their community in a single evening – and do not seriously try.

Even using this very dodgy estimate, ministers claiming rough sleeping fell 9% last year would still be a decade away from ending the problem they have created. But the Tory manifesto committed to ending rough sleeping in this parliament. The reality is that government ministers have ignored the two homeless people dying daily, the children sleeping in recycling bins, and rough sleepers being crushed to death in bin lorries.

Ministers could ensure deaths are at least investigated. Safeguarding reviews could examine if the death of anyone crushed in a bin lorry could have been avoided. If housing could have been identified. If a mental health intervention might have helped. If they were fleeing violence or exploitation elsewhere. But reviews do not take place and the government has, to date, avoided requiring them routinely. That must change.

3rd March, 2020


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