More homeless people are dying in the UK – we have a solution, so why aren’t we acting on it? | Daniel Lavelle and Simon Hattenstone

During the pandemic the government housed rough sleepers and gave them tailored support, until it came to an abrupt end

On 19 December 2018, Gyula Remes collapsed on parliament’s doorstep after having slept rough around Westminster for months. The Hungarian national died just over the river from the Palace of Westminster at St Thomas’s hospital, after collapsing in Westminster tube station, in the tunnels that MPs walk through to their offices. He was 43. Politicians were quick to express their outrage. Labour MP David Lammy tweeted: “There is something rotten in Westminster when MPs walk past dying homeless people on the way into work.”

Yet four years on, nothing has changed. And it looks as if things are going to get far worse in future. Yesterday, the Office for National Statistics revealed that an estimated 741 homeless people died in England and Wales in 2021 – an increase of 54% since records began in 2013. Meanwhile, the figures in Scotland are even bleaker. There were 222 homeless deaths identified, although the real figure is estimated to be 250; roughly five homeless deaths a week.

These latest figures are from 2021, when the pandemic’s long-term economic consequences had yet to bite, before Russia invaded Ukraine, and before the latest round of austerity. Now we’re in the middle of a devastating cost of living crisis. Rents have risen at a 16-year-high rate in England. In Wales, fewer than 1% of homes in the private rented sector are affordable to people on housing benefit, according to a joint investigation by voice.wales and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. That’s on top of having to face unprecedented energy costs and food prices. It’s terrifying to think about what next year’s figures will be.

Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis, the UK national charity for people experiencing homelessness, said of the latest homeless death figures: “Behind each of these statistics is a human being, an individual who tragically spent their last moments homeless. We know that being homeless often means feeling like you have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. It’s difficult to bear, but that will have been the experience of some of the real people behind these figures.” The human stories behind these cold statistics are what we wanted to get across when we told the life stories of people who had died while homeless for the Guardian’s empty doorway series.

We hoped the stories of people such as Aimee Teese (a single mother perishing in a tent months after being released from custody), Sharron Maasz (a much-loved outreach worker who ended up street homeless) and Hamid Alamdari (a gifted physicist reduced to living in his car) would galvanise politicians to make a change.

But it didn’t. The only time this government has lifted a finger in a meaningful way was when it realised that rough sleepers dying on the streets during a pandemic was bad publicity. The Everyone In policy brought together local authorities and an army of volunteers from various homeless charities. They helped 37,430 people into temporary places in budget hotels, delivering them hot meals and support from a secure and settled base. In January 2021, the government reported that the scheme had helped 26,167 people move into permanent accommodation.

Everyone In was effectively the UK’s most comprehensive trial of Housing First to date. Housing First prioritises providing homeless people with a home in the first instance and then wraparound support tailored specifically to their needs. The policy has successfully tackled, if not eliminated, homelessness in other countries.

Since then, we have gone backwards. As well as homeless deaths, overall homelessness is creeping back up to pre-pandemic levels, and it is only going in one direction. Young people will be particularly vulnerable this winter. Youth charity Centrepoint predicts that almost 30,000 young people aged between the ages of 16 and 24 will face homelessness in England this Christmas. Their research also shows that about half of adults aged between 18 and 34 have struggled with finances and mental health over the past 12 months.

It is a disgrace that thousands of people have died on our streets in the last 10 years, and hundreds more have likely died this year, especially when the solution is so simple. Although Housing First is not a panacea, it has produced positive outcomes everywhere it has been trialled.

Emily Cole, programme lead at Greater Manchester Housing First, reports that the city has now helped 445 people into their own homes and boasts an 81% tenancy sustainment rate – a typical figure for Housing First programmes around the world. This is achieved by offering recently housed people whatever assistance they may need to move forward with their lives, be it mental health or substance abuse support, assistance with job training or financial literacy. It’s time to stop messing around with pilots and trials and roll this highly effective policy out nationwide with a commitment to building enough social housing.

It’s not hyperbole to say that homelessness has become a humanitarian emergency in this country. You might dismiss this as bleeding-heart histrionics, but it is not unreasonable to demand that if the government continues to ignore the needless deaths of its own citizens on its own doorstep, then the international community must intervene.

  • Daniel Lavelle writes on mental health, homelessness and social care

  • Simon Hattenstone is a features writer for the Guardian

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Daniel Lavelle and Simon Hattenstone

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