Why homeless men die 22 years younger

Homeless people are six times more likely to die earlier than the general population, according to new research that reveals a hidden cost of the economic downturn.

Charities have urged ministers to consider the study when shaping health and housing policies after research into 32,711 people on the Danish homeless register revealed that males die 22 years earlier than average, with the lifespan of young females shortened by 17 years.

One of the most alarming statistics was the level of mental-health disorders, which suggested that substance abuse was associated with a 40 per cent increased risk of death among men and 70 per cent among women.

The 11-year study, conducted by the Mental Health Centre in Copenhagen and published in the Lancet medical journal, was designed to assess the impact of homelessness in Europe. Suicide, violence and accidental injury accounted for more than 30 per cent of the 4,000 deaths recorded over the course of the research.

Charities urged ministers to consider the study when shaping health and social policy, as homelessness in the UK is rising dramatically. Recent government figures showed that 26,400 people approached a local council for housing help in the first three months of 2011, a rise of 23 per cent compared with the same period last year.

Leslie Morphy, the chief executive of Crisis, said the study was a "wake-up call" to policymakers. "At a time when the future of the NHS is undergoing massive change it is vital that these harsh statistics ensure that the health of some of our most vulnerable citizens becomes a real priority," she said. "We must do more to end homelessness and as part of that, homeless people must get better access to the health services they need, particularly psychiatric and substance-misuse services." Oxford University's Professor John Geddes said the study had "important implications for health services". He said: "It suggests that integrated psychiatric and substance-abuse treatment is necessary to address these inequalities. Such enhanced treatment is likely to confer additional benefits, including a reduction in violent crime, specific causes of mortality including suicide, and victimisation."

Sandra Feodor Nielsen, of the University of Copenhagen, who led the study, said it pointed to a "marginalised population" that required "more attention on the health agenda".

In the UK, some of the biggest increases in homeless applications came in London boroughs, according to the latest government study.

In the first three months of 2011, the highest rises were recorded in Bromley (99 per cent), Hammersmith and Fulham (92 per cent), Islington (88 per cent) and Haringey ( 83 per cent). The figures also revealed an increase in homeless families being housed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

Campaigners have warned that the surge in homelessness will accelerate over the coming months as changes to housing benefits start to affect households in Britain.

Rent arrears or mortgage defaults were to blame for a growing share of the people given housing help, though relationship breakdowns and rejections by family or friends, remained the key causes of homelessness.

Though there is evidence councils are refusing proportionately more applicants, the number of people approved as being in need of housing rose by 10 per cent year-on-year in 2010-11 – the first such rise for seven years.