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Surge in drug poisonings behind biggest rise in homeless deaths on record

Two in five of the deaths were related to drug poisoning.

Most of the homeless deaths in 2018 were men (Owen Humphreys/PA)
Most of the homeless deaths in 2018 were men (Owen Humphreys/PA)

By Amy Murphy and George Ryan, PA

A huge increase in drugs fatalities has contributed to the biggest rise in deaths of homeless people in England and Wales since records began.

Deaths of homeless people increased by 22% to 726 in 2018 – the largest rise since 2013, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures.

Two in five of the deaths were related to drug poisoning – an increase of 55% on 2017 and compared with just 16% for the population as a whole.

Ben Humberstone, head of health analysis and life events at the ONS, said: “The deaths of 726 homeless people in England and Wales recorded in 2018 represent an increase of over a fifth on the previous year. That’s the largest rise since these figures began in 2013.

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(PA Graphics)

“A key driver of the change is the number of deaths related to drug poisoning, which are up by 55% since 2017, compared to 16% for the population as a whole.”

Most of the deaths in 2018 were men – with an estimated 641 deaths – with an average age of 45 for men and 43 for women.

London had the highest number of deaths, with 20% of the total, followed by the North West, with 14%.

The ONS said deaths from drugs had more than doubled over the six years it had been recording the data.

This is now the second year running where we have known the true scale of the human cost of homelessness, yet still the lessons from these tragic deaths go unlearnt Jon Sparkes, Crisis chief executive

Figures in 2018 showed there were an estimated 294 drug-related deaths – 40% of the total – compared with 190 deaths in 2017.

The most frequently mentioned substances on the death certificates of those identified as homeless in 2018 were opiates, with heroin or morphine being the most common forms.

Jon Sparkes, Crisis chief executive, said: “It is heart-breaking that hundreds of people were forced to spend the last days of their lives without the dignity of a secure home.

“This is now the second year running where we have known the true scale of the human cost of homelessness, yet still the lessons from these tragic deaths go unlearnt.”

Mr Sparkes continued: “It’s crucial that governments urgently expand the safeguarding system used to investigate the deaths of vulnerable adults to include everyone who has died while street homeless so we can help prevent more people from dying needlessly.

“Because, in this day and age, there is no excuse for anyone dying without a safe place to call home.”

The Liberal Democrats criticised local and national politicians for a failure to tackle homelessness and warned that thousands more people could be trapped in “hidden homelessness”.

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(PA Graphics)

Jane Brophy, Lib Dem MEP for the North West, said: “These numbers are likely to just be scraping the surfaces. Big cities like Manchester and Liverpool often have a deep-rooted ‘hidden homeless’ crisis and we must take on the causes.”

John Leech, leader of the Lib Dems in Manchester, said: “Today’s figures don’t just highlight the gross incompetence and lack of priorities from local and national politicians, nor is it just a complete embarrassment, but it exposes the deeply worrying, critical and consistent failure of a local and national system that simply doesn’t care.”

The ONS figures show that the highest estimated number of homeless deaths by local authority were in major urban centres – consistent with data showing higher concentrations of rough sleeping in urban areas.

The local authority with the highest number of estimated deaths was Birmingham, with 23, followed by Newcastle, with 20.

Mr Leech pledged to end the crisis in Manchester, which had the third-highest recorded number of deaths, with 19 homeless people estimated to have died in 2018.

He said: “Perhaps most tragically, these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. Walk down any city centre street and you will see people with next to nothing to their name.”

He added: “In Manchester, only the Liberal Democrats will end this crisis and we have pledged to end wasteful spending and invest more money than ever before into preventing homelessness, tackling the causes and putting an end to the greatest injustice of our lifetime.”

Shadow housing secretary John Healey said a rise in rough sleeping was a direct result of Conservative policies on housing and homelessness since 2010.

He said: “These figures are shameful in a country as rich as ours. High and rising homelessness is not inevitable.”

Mr Healey added: “The next Labour government will end rough sleeping within a parliament and tackle the root causes of rising homelessness with more affordable homes and stronger rights for renters.”

Responding to an urgent question in the Commons, housing minister Luke Hall said the statistics were “heartbreaking”.

“There is no shying away from these statistics. They are heartbreaking.”

Mr Hall told MPs the Government is not complacent on homelessness.

He added: “We are increasing funding next year by £54 million, a 13% real-terms increase. I think it is important to note in the rough sleeping initiative area we have piloted we saw a direct fall of 19% of rough sleeping in the first year.

“Next year we are delivering 750 more staff, and 2,600 bed spaces.”

Reform, an independent think tank, said the rise in deaths shows that Government homelessness policies are failing.

Senior Reform researcher Dr Luke Heselwood said: “One year on from the flagship Homelessness Reduction Act and the Rough Sleeping Strategy, which were meant to bolster efforts to prevent homelessness, the number of people dying on our streets should not be on the rise.

“Short-term, hand-to-mouth funding for local services has inhibited councils’ efforts to implement this legislation and prevent those at risk from becoming homeless.

“Long-term, sustainable funding for these services is a must to reverse this terrible trend.”

Housing charity Shelter called on all parties to commit to building more social homes.

Chief executive Polly Neate said: “These tragic deaths are the consequence of a housing system and economy that is failing too many of our fellow citizens.

“We desperately need to set a new course and to do that we need urgent action. You can’t solve homelessness without homes.”

Homelessness charity St Mungo’s called on the Government to take action to put an end to rough sleeping and prevent more deaths.

We need to build homes, to make the welfare system truly work for the most vulnerable and to fund homelessness services to help people find a way off the streets, and out of danger, for good Howard Sinclair, St Mungo's

Howard Sinclair, chief executive of St Mungo’s, said: “Years of funding cuts have devastated crucial services supporting people who are homeless. The human cost is a national tragedy.”

He added: “We need to build homes, to make the welfare system truly work for the most vulnerable and to fund homelessness services to help people find a way off the streets, and out of danger, for good.”

The District Councils’ Network (DCN) urged the Government to help local councils to be able to provide housing and prevent homelessness.

Tom Beattie, vice chairman of the DCN, said: “These alarming figures should be a wake-up call to the Government on the need to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness.

“Districts play a key role in preventing homelessness and want to make sure everyone in their communities has a secure, affordable place to call home.

“We call on the Government to urgently address this by providing councils with the tools and flexibilities we need to ensure every partner plays their full roll in preventing homelessness happening in the first place.”

The Local Government Association (LGA) said councils need more funding for health services and powers to invest in new homes.

Housing spokesman David Renard said: “This is why we need the Government to provide councils with a long-term sustainable funding solution if we are to reduce homelessness and, with two in five deaths related to drug poisoning, adequately fund public health services so that councils can invest in drug and alcohol treatment services to make sure people get the support they need.

“The Government should also adapt welfare reforms to protect families at risk of becoming homeless and give councils the powers to invest in new homes for those that need them, such as through reforming the Right to Buy scheme to enable councils to keep all sales receipts and set discounts locally.”

The British Medical Association (BMA) described the rise in homeless deaths as “unacceptable and completely avoidable”.

Dr Peter English, BMA public health medicine committee chairman, said: “For too long, the needs of this population have gone shamefully unaddressed.

“As well as seeing a radical overhaul of social housing provision, we need to ensure that our health services are adequately resourced to provide innovative and integrated models of care for the homeless population.”

PA

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