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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Big jump in homeless people dying

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Grim new statistics show that 726 homeless people died in England and Wales last year, at an average age of just 45 for men and 43 for women.

This blog seeks to cover all the latest major policy announcements, research and statistics in the crime and drug & alcohol sectors. Much of the content over the last few years – prison safety figures, prison and probation inspection findings – have been pretty depressing. Few, though, have been as grim as today’s post on yesterday’s Office of National Statistics statistical bulletin on the Deaths of homeless people in England and Wales: 2018.

The headline findings from the bulletin are:

  • There were an estimated 726 deaths of homeless people in England and Wales registered in 2018, the highest year-to-year increase (22%) since our time series began.
  • Most of the deaths in 2018 were among men (641 estimated deaths; 88% of the total).
  • The mean age at death was 45 years for males and 43 years for females in 2018; in the general population of England and Wales, the mean age at death was 76 years for men and 81 years for women.
  • Two in five deaths of homeless people were related to drug poisoning in 2018 (294 estimated deaths), and the number of deaths from this cause has increased by 55% since 2017.
  • London and the North West had the highest numbers of deaths in 2018, with 148 (20% of the total number) and 103 (14% of the total number) estimated deaths of homeless people respectively.

Definition of homelessness

The definition of homelessness used by the ONS is related to what is available in death registrations data to identify affected individuals. The statistics mainly include people sleeping rough or using emergency accommodation such as homeless shelters and direct access hostels, at or around the time of death. An upper age limit of 74 years is applied to avoid accidental inclusion of elderly people who died in some institutional settings which means that a small number of genuine deaths of homeless people aged 75 years or over might have been excluded.

A big increase

In 2018, there were an estimated 726 deaths of homeless people in England and Wales, 129 (22%) more deaths than in 2017 when there were 597 estimated deaths. The increase is statistically significant and represents the largest year-to-year increase in estimated deaths since the time series began in 2013. The number of identified homeless cases increased by 10%, from 491 to 541 deaths since 2017. Of the 541 identified cases in deaths registration data, 95% (516 deaths) were recorded in England. It is possible that some of this increase may be due to an improvement in the recording of homelessness data in the number of estimated deaths over the last six years. 

Drug-related deaths

As in the general population, homeless people die from a broad range of causes such as accidents, diseases of the liver, ischaemic heart diseases, cancers, and influenza and pneumonia. Most deaths among homeless people are captured in the National Statistics definitions of drug-related poisoning, suicide, and alcohol-specific deaths.

294 estimated deaths of homeless people in 2018 were related to drug poisoning, that is 40% of all estimated deaths. Suicide and alcohol-specific causes both accounted for 12% (86 deaths) of estimated deaths of homeless people in 2018 respectively. Because of an overlap in definitions, some deaths classified as suicide are also counted in the definitions of drug-related deaths and alcohol-specific deaths.

Compared with the previous year, the number of deaths caused by drug poisoning increased by 55% from 190 estimated deaths in 2017. An increase in the number of deaths related to drug poisoning was also observed in the general population during the same time period. For deaths caused by suicide or alcohol-specific causes, the number of deaths among homeless people has generally been consistent since 2013. 

Conclusion

It is hard to accept that we can see such an increase in the number of people dying when homeless in the 21st century when governments of all political hues claim to have invested significant sums of money in tackling rough sleeping in particular over the last two decades.

The loss of 726 individual human beings in one year seems to be both tragic, and in many cases, surely, avoidable.

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