20 December 2018

Britain must do more for the homeless and destitute

By Chris Goulden

For the first time, we learnt from the Office for National Statistics today that nearly 600 homeless people died in England and Wales last year. This has increased by a quarter compared with five years ago. These are shocking figures and it’s simply not acceptable in our society that people are being left at such risk and in so vulnerable a situation. We should be treating everyone in our country with the compassion and preventing anyone from having to live on the streets, denied even a basic standard of living.

These mortality figures show the very different situation that homeless people are in and the risks they face. Other research has estimated that homeless people are more than four times more likely to die than the general population. That’s partly a result of their situation, but also related to some of the reasons why they may have become homeless in the first place.

Over half of all deaths of homeless people were due to drug poisoning (mostly heroin, methadone, cocaine or benzodiazepine), suicides or alcohol-related liver disease. These are much more common as causes of death than among the wider population. Deaths occurred mainly among men (84 per cent of all deaths) and were concentrated in London and the North West. The causes of death are very different to the rest of the population and homeless people die at a much younger age on average (44 years old). People who were included in these figures were either sleeping rough, or using emergency accommodation such as homeless shelters and hostels, at or around the time of death.

We should of course be trying to prevent unnecessary deaths of homeless people or others in extremely vulnerable situations. But homelessness is the sharp end of a wider problem of destitution in the UK. A report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation with Heriot-Watt University published this year found that 1.5 million people were destitute at some point during 2017, including 365,000 children.

That means they could not afford the bare essentials we all need. That’s a home, food, heating, lighting, clothing, shoes and basic toiletries. We defined destitution as when people have lacked two or more of these essentials over the past month because they couldn’t afford them; or when their income is extremely low – less than £70 a week for a single adult. This definition is in line with what the general public agree destitution to be.

Chart: Essentials lacked in preceding month among destitute households

Destitution, in turn, typically happens when people have been trapped in long-term poverty and deep hardship. As for homelessness, single, younger men are at highest risk and three in four of those in destitution were born in the UK. Almost all people experiencing destitution (in addition to those who are homeless) live in rented or shared accommodation. And like those found to be dying while homeless, destitution is clustered around the major northern cities and in some London Boroughs.

People are pulled into destitution by a combination of factors. Low benefit levels, benefit sanctions, and delays in receiving benefits, and sometimes a lack of eligibility for benefits at all. Harsh debt recovery practices, including by councils and utility providers. Financial pressures relating to poor underlying health or disability and the high cost of living – especially for rent, gas and electricity – were also triggers.

These stories should spur on policymakers at national and local level to act. The good news is that it is possible to reduce and homelessness, and provide an anchor for people who are dying unnecessarily on the streets or in temporary hostels or shelters.

In 2019, the government needs to take steps to prevent more people being pulled into poverty and destitution. There are three things that need to happen.

First, end the freeze on working-age benefits a year early this coming April, so people can at least keep up with the cost of essentials. Second, change how sanctions are used within Universal Credit and the rest of the benefits system so that people are not left destitute by design. Third, change how debt is clawed back from people receiving benefits, so people can keep their heads above water.

Social security is a public service, like the NHS or schools, that we all rely on from time to time. They are designed by the state and we can change how they work. For people trapped in destitution, we have a moral duty to create a social security system that holds people steady when they fall on hard times.

No one wants to see people in such desperate situations – we must now act and make it our mission to prevent these unnecessary deaths, so we’re not seeing a repeat of these shocking figures next year.

Chris Goulden is deputy director at the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).