Homeless deaths in England and Wales rise for fifth year in a row

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Number of deaths reach highest level since records began in 2013, Office for National Statistics data shows

A homeless man makes his home for the night on Westminster Bridge
Figures show a 7.2% increase in homeless deaths in 2019 compared with the previous year. Photograph: Alex Lentati
Figures show a 7.2% increase in homeless deaths in 2019 compared with the previous year. Photograph: Alex Lentati

Last modified on Mon 14 Dec 2020 07.58 EST

The number of people dying while homeless in England and Wales has risen for a fifth year in a row to reach the highest level since the collection of comparable statistics began in 2013.

An estimated 778 people died while homeless in 2019, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – an increase of 7.2% on the 726 deaths the previous year.

The most common cause of death was drug poisoning, which accounted for 37.1% of deaths. The data showed a large rise in the number of homeless people killing themselves, increasing by 30.2% from 86 estimated deaths in 2018 to 112 in 2019.

The mean age at death was 45.9 years for homeless males and 43.4 years for females in 2019, compared with 76.1 years for men and 80.9 years for women in the general population of England and Wales, the ONS said.

The latest figures were published on the same day as the initial findings from a survey by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) of rough sleepers across England. It found widespread vulnerabilities among respondents, with 83% reporting at least one physical health need, and 82% reporting a mental health vulnerability. Almost half had approached a local authority for help between one and five times in the past year, the survey found.

Labour pointed out that rough sleeping had doubled in 10 years of Conservative governments. Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow housing secretary, said: “The rapid increase in these deaths over the last six years is a shameful sign of government failure and should raise alarm at the top of government. Before the Covid crisis, a record number of people were dying while homeless. This winter will be even more dangerous.”

Polly Neate, chief executive of the housing charity Shelter, said: “Coronavirus has made the streets even more dangerous. At the start of lockdown in March thousands of people were offered accommodation, but with the economic fallout of the crisis resulting in thousands of job losses, many people will be facing the trauma of homelessness this winter.

“These are not just statistics, they are real people who have tragically lost their lives during a nationwide housing emergency.”

Also on Monday, the minister for rough sleeping and housing, Kelly Tolhurst, announced new support for rough sleepers with drug and alcohol support needs. Forty-three areas across England will receive support from a £23m government fund, boosted by a further £52m in 2021 to 2022, according to a MHCLG press release.

An MHCLG spokesperson said: “Every death of someone sleeping rough on our streets is one too many. That’s why we are investing over £700m to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness this year alone – as part of our mission to end rough sleeping for good. And today we have announced extra support for rough sleepers and vulnerable people to help them recover from drug and alcohol dependency.”