On December 19, 2018, Gyula Remes collapsed at the gates of parliament after sleeping rough around Westminster for months. The Hungarian national died just across the river from the Palace of Westminster at St Thomas’ Hospital, after collapsing in Westminster Underground station, in the tunnels MPs pass through on their way to their offices. He was 43 years old. Politicians were quick to express their outrage. Labor MP David Lammy tweeted: ‘There’s something rotten in Westminster when MPs walk past dying homeless people on their way to work.
Yet, four years later, nothing has changed. And it looks like things will get worse in the future. Yesterday the Office for National Statistics revealed that around 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 darker. There have been 222 identified homeless deaths, although the true figure is believed to be 250; about five homeless deaths per week.
These latest figures are from 2021, when the long-term economic consequences of the pandemic had yet to emerge, before Russia invaded Ukraine and before the last round of austerity. We are now in the midst of a devastating cost of living crisis. Rents have risen at a 16-year record rate in England. In Wales, less than 1% of private rental housing is affordable people on housing benefit, according to a joint investigation by voice.wales and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. This is in addition to the need to deal with unprecedented energy and food costs. It’s terrifying to think what the numbers will be next year.
Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis, Britain’s national homelessness charity, said of the latest figures on homeless deaths: “Behind every one of these statistics is a human being, an individual who tragically spent his 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 hard to bear, but it will have been the experience of some of the real people behind these numbers. The human stories behind these cold statistics are what we wanted to convey when we told the life stories of people who died while homeless for The Guardian’s Empty Doors series.
We hoped that the stories of people like Aimee Teese (a single mother perishing in a tent months after being released), Sharron Maasz (a much-loved outreach worker who found herself homeless on the streets) and Hamid Alamdari (a gifted physicist reduced to living in his car) would inspire politicians to change things.
But that was not the case. The only time this government lifted a finger in any significant way was when it realized that homeless people dying on the streets during a pandemic was bad publicity. The Everyone policy brought together local authorities and an army of volunteers from various homeless charities. They helped 37,430 people find temporary places in budget hotels, delivering hot meals and support from a secure, sedentary base. In January 2021, the government said the scheme had helped 26,167 people move into permanent accommodation.
Everyone was effectively the UK’s most comprehensive housing first trial to date. Housing First prioritises providing homeless people first with housing and then with comprehensive support tailored specifically to their needs. The policy has been successful in tackling, if not eliminating, homelessness in other countries.
Since then, we have backtracked. In addition to homeless deaths, overall homelessness is rising back to pre-pandemic levels, and it’s only going in one direction. Young people will be particularly vulnerable this winter. Youth charity Centrepoint predicts that nearly 30,000 young people aged 16 to 24 will face homelessness in England this Christmas. Their research also shows that around half of adults aged 18 to 34 have experienced financial and mental health challenges in the past 12 months.
It’s a shame that thousands of people have died on our streets in the last 10 years, and hundreds more have probably died this year, especially when the solution is so simple. Although Housing First is not a panacea, it has produced positive results everywhere it has been tested.
Emily Cole, program manager at Greater Manchester Housing First, reports that the city has now helped 445 people return to their own homes and boasts an 81 per cent rental retention rate – a typical figure for Housing First programs across the country. the world. This is achieved by providing newly housed individuals with all the help they may need to move forward in their lives, whether it is mental health or addictions support, training assistance career or financial literacy. It’s time to stop playing with pilots and trials and roll out this highly effective policy nationwide with a commitment to building enough social housing.
It is no exaggeration to say that homelessness has become a humanitarian emergency in this country. You might dismiss this as bleeding-heart histrionics, but it’s 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 step in.
Daniel Lavelle writes about mental health, homelessness and social care
Simon Hattenstone is a feature editor for the Guardian