Cold weather isn’t the reason for homeless people dying on Britain’s streets: it’s a “toxic combination” of policies and political priorities that is killing them, argues the charity responsible for recording the tragedies.
At least five people sleeping rough are believed to have died in the last few weeks as the UK was hit by sub-zero temperatures, with local media reports suggesting the freezing conditions were the major factor.
The Museum of Homelessness (MoH) says the weather only heightens the problems caused by “a decade of policies designed to punish the poorest in our society”.
On Tuesday, a man died after being found sleeping next to the Hilton Hotel in Nottingham. On the same day, a homeless father-of-three was thought to have frozen to death in his tent in Wakefield, West Yorkshire.
In Glasgow, a 43-year-old homeless man was found dead inside a car park on November 17.
In another case, a pub landlord in Bury attempted to save a homeless man on November 15, but he later suffered “a medical episode” and died in hospital.
On November 4, a man believed to be in his 50s was found dead in a small park in Camden.
The tragedies add to the death toll of rough sleepers that authorities have only recently begun to get to grips with. In October, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that deaths of homeless people rose by 22% to 726 in 2018 – the largest rise since records began only five years earlier. Homelessness charity St Mungo’s said the figures represented a “national tragedy”.
The ONS analysis also found that, while there was no seasonal pattern to the deaths, in each year since 2013 most occurred in December. But the MoH says the weather isn’t ultimately to blame.
It manages the Dying Homeless Project, a groundbreaking initiative started by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that records how many people have died on Britain’s streets.
The audit, gathered from direct reporting on its website, homelessness charities, grassroots organisations, local media and Freedom of Information requests, was the catalyst for the ONS to gather its official figures.
The information gathering is rigorous. The MoH previously revealed that in the first half of this year a homeless person dies on average every 19 hours in the UK. That is a slight increase in the death rate from the previous year despite raised awareness of the issue.
Jess Turtle, who co-founded MoH with her husband Matt, said that since the Dying Homeless Project was launched more than a thousand names had been recorded. As well as data gathering, the MoH attempts to preserve and share stories through the art and culture of homelessness in the UK.
Turtle told HuffPost UK MoH had received many more reports than usual as the cold weather kicks in, but added: “We should remember that this disgraceful situation goes far beyond the weather.
“It has its roots in almost a decade of policies designed to punish the poorest in our society.
“We now find ourselves in a perfect storm caused by austerity, welfare reform, the hostile environment, failure to build council housing and pressure on health services.
“It is this toxic combination that is forcing so many into destitution, homelessness and ultimately causing premature deaths.”
She added that at least 30% of homeless deaths are considered preventable, but too many cannot access the healthcare and services they need.
“The rise in homelessness and homeless deaths is stark evidence that, in the fifth wealthiest nation on earth, we are failing our most vulnerable citizens,” Turtle said.
The UK’s major political parties have all laid out their proposals to tackle homelessness in recent days.
The Conservative Party said its Affordable Homes Programme, a government scheme to build 200,000 homes, is a “key part of our efforts to prevent people from falling into homelessness”. The party added it would “end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next parliament” by expanding pilot schemes including the Rough Sleeping Initiative, a £30m fund for local authorities with high levels of rough sleeping.
The Labour Party has pledged to “end rough sleeping within five years”, and provide 8,000 additional homes for people with a history of rough sleeping as part of a major housebuilding programme.
The Lib Dems say “nobody should have to spend a night sleeping on the streets” and also promises to end rough sleeping within five years. Among specific policies, it would introduce a “somewhere safe to stay” legal duty to ensure everyone who is at risk of sleeping rough is provided with emergency accommodation and an assessment of their needs.