December 16 was Paul Williams’ final night sleeping rough on Birmingham’s streets.
When he bedded down outside a Wagamama restaurant beside the city’s Bullring shopping centre, temperatures plummeted to below freezing. He never woke up.
Williams was 38. He is just one of hundreds of homeless people who have died on the streets or in temporary accommodation, a number that has more than doubled in the last five years.
The latest figures, analysed by the Guardian newspaper, revealed that in 2013, 31 people died on the streets. In 2017, that number had risen to 70. At least 230 people died over that period.
Less than a week before he died, Williams had found a room, but he only spent two nights sleeping there before leaving to join his friend, Alan, back on the streets, because he didn’t want to leave him alone.
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“He was an amazing person,” his cousin, Suzanne Hall, recalled. Williams had struggled with alcohol dependency for years, which led to him becoming estranged from many of his relatives.
“It was just the drink that took him away. People just say ‘oh he’s an alcoholic and living on the streets’. Yes he was, but he was still someone’s family,” she said.
Rough sleeping has reached record levels in England: figures published earlier this year revealed that an estimated 4,751 people were living on the streets of England in the autumn of 2017. This was a 15% rise, up by 617 from the autumn 2016 total of 4,134.
As there is no central database for recording homeless death statistics at a national level – and local authorities are not required to count rough sleeper deaths – the figures obtained by the Guardian are believed to be a substantial underestimate.
A verified rough sleeper is described as a homeless person who has been seen rough sleeping by an outreach worker. The average age of a rough sleeper at death is 43, according to the Guardian’s figures.
Williams started drinking when he was in his mid-teens, his cousin remembers. “His mum and dad split up when he was 15, he was on his own a lot, so he started to drink with his friends and that’s how it progressed, and then he started drinking all the time.”
He had a number of jobs after leaving school, in local factories and McDonald’s, but his alcohol dependency continued to cause him problems.
After losing his flat because he couldn’t afford his rent, he sofa-surfed for a while before he began living on the streets, with only sporadic contact with his family over the years.
Williams got back in touch with his relatives shortly after his grandmother passed away in 2011. He was “distraught” that he missed her funeral, Hall recalled. He had been estranged from his family for most of the time since her death.
Just days before Williams passed away, outreach workers warned that there would be more deaths on Birmingham’s streets if people were left to sleep rough in the bitterly cold weather.
Rik James, founder of Birmingham Homeless Outreach, told HuffPost UK in December: “People need to realise what is happening in this world.
“It’s not about a hand down, it’s about a hand up. It’s about helping these people to get back on their feet and sort them out.
“The cold is the worst, people need to prepare for the homeless before this winter weather comes. We will find more homeless people dead on our streets in Birmingham.”
An inquest was held into Paul’s death in February, with the coroner reaching the verdict that he had died from alcohol or drug-related causes.
When asked how the family processed what happened, Hall said: “I don’t think we did, I don’t think we did for a long time.
“I was talking to his brother last night about it and I was saying it still sometimes doesn’t seem real and he said that sometimes he thinks that he could walk into Birmingham and see him sitting there.”
Paul’s death led to a new charity, Helping Hands of Birmingham, being set up in his memory. Hall, who is a trustee, said she enjoys her work with the charity, but adds that the experience is bittersweet.
“In a way we all feel like we let him down, but also you cannot help someone that doesn’t want to be helped.
“He liked his drink, he didn’t touch drugs, he didn’t do anything, he didn’t steal. He wasn’t that sort of person. His demon was the drink and in the end it killed him.”
Hall, who works in administration for a healthcare company, said she avoided going to Birmingham city centre when she knew Williams was sleeping rough because she didn’t know how to help him. Now she is grateful to be able to offer assistance to those living on the streets.
“I didn’t want to have to see him… now you get the sense that you have achieved something (by doing outreach work),” she said.
In a way we all feel like we let him down Suzanne Hall
Volunteers from the charity go out on the streets of Birmingham, usually after 8pm when rough sleepers are bedding down for the night, and distribute supplies and offer support.
“We see the genuine people who are just about to lie down with their quilt in the doorways and it’s absolutely heartbreaking,” Hall said.
“Last week we gave someone some second hand shoes and you would have thought we’d given him half a million pounds.
“He was skipping saying ‘I’ve got new shoes, I’ve got new shoes’, he couldn’t wait to put them on his feet.”
She said she fears that the number of people sleeping rough will only increase as she criticises the lack of support from local services.
“It’s only going to get worse. With all these cutbacks with universal credit it’s going to make more people not be able to afford where they live.”
Speaking about the lack of services available for those she’s encountered on the streets, Hall said: “We were doing outreach and there was one gentleman who had just come out of prison and nothing had been set up for him and he was sleeping on the streets.
“There was another gentleman and his girlfriend had kicked him out and they stopped all his benefits coming, he didn’t have a fixed abode so he was on the street. A lot of it is to do with the system.”
Homelessness campaigners have called for the Safeguarding Adult Review (SAR) system, which is currently used to investigate the deaths of children and vulnerable adults, extended to include cases where a person has died whilst living on the streets.
Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at homelessness charity Crisis, said: “This will allow us to have a more accurate picture of the number of people who die on our streets, and will give the authorities, councils and homelessness services valuable information that could help them prevent the deaths of rough sleepers in the future.”