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Drugs & alcohol main causes of homeless people dying
Drug poisoning was the cause of death for almost two in five of the 741 homeless people who died last year.

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Jump in the number of homeless people dying

I cover a lot of different statistics on this blog. One of the saddest datasets is the Office of National Statistics bulletin on the deaths of homeless people. Yesterday’s edition (24 November 2022) covered the 741 deaths of homeless people in England and Wales which were registered in 2021.

This figure represents an increase of 7.7% (or 53 deaths) from 2020. The latest figure is more in line with pre-pandemic levels following a notable fall in 2020, although it’s too early to say whether this is a resumption of an upward trend in homeless deaths.

Before looking at the figures in more detail, I find it salutary to remind myself that every death of a homeless person is a tragedy with very many being preventable.

Main findings

As we have seen, there were an estimated 741 deaths of homeless people in England and Wales registered in 2021, with a 95% confidence interval of 658 to 824 estimated deaths. For those wondering how the ONS defines homelessness for these statistics, their definition does not align with other government definitions as the statisticians rely on death records. The records they identify as relevant are mainly people sleeping rough, or using emergency accommodation such as homeless shelters and direct access hostels, at or around the time of death. The main findings include:

  • Almost two in five deaths of homeless people were related to drug poisoning in 2021 (259 estimated deaths; 35.0% of the total number), consistent with previous years.

  • There were an estimated 99 suicide deaths and 71 alcohol-specific deaths, accounting for 13.4% and 9.6% of deaths respectively.

  • There was estimated to have been 26 deaths (3.5% of the total) of homeless people involving coronavirus (COVID-19) registered in 2021; this was twice the number estimated in 2020 (13 deaths).

  • Most homeless deaths registered in 2021 were among men (647 estimated deaths; 87.3% of the total), consistent with previous years.

  • London and the North West had the highest numbers of deaths registered in 2021, with 154 (20.8% of the total number) and 114 (15.4% of the total number) estimated deaths of homeless people respectively.

Causes of death

An estimated 259 deaths of homeless people registered in 2021 were related to drug poisoning, accounting for 35.0% of all estimated deaths. Alcohol-specific causes and suicide accounted for 9.6% (71 deaths) and 13.4% (99 deaths) of estimated deaths of homeless people registered in 2021 respectively. Together these three causes accounted for an estimated 57.9% of homeless deaths registered in 2021, a proportion that is consistent with previous years.

(Please note that, because of an overlap in definitions, some deaths classified as suicide are also counted in the ONS definitions of drug-related deaths and alcohol-specific deaths.)

Finding higher numbers of deaths among homeless people for these causes is, of course, consistent with academic studies of the health and mortality of homeless individuals. In comparison, the leading causes of death in the general population for all those aged 20 to 49 years were accidental poisoning (11.2% of deaths) and intentional self-harm and event of undetermined intent (11.8% of deaths); in those aged 50 to 64 years, the leading causes of deaths were ischaemic heart diseases (12.9%) and coronavirus (COVID-19) (12.4%).

There were an estimated 26 deaths (3.5%) of homeless people involving COVID-19 registered in 2021.


This is a particularly troubling set of statistics to read, in particular because we can already see the effects of removing the extra support which was put in place for homeless people during the height of the pandemic.


Thanks to Jon Tyson for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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