Young vagrants dying for a home

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The Independent Online
Homeless people are dying on the streets at the age of 42 - five years younger than they were in 1992 and more than 30 years before the average population.

According to research by the homeless charity, Crisis, life expectancy is continuing to fall despite the number of people sleeping rough on any one night dropping by two-thirds over the same period. Nationally, life expectancy is 76.

The report, Still Dying For a Home, examined the London Coroner's Court records for the year up to the end of August 1996. In total, 74 deaths of rough sleepers were recorded - the same number as when similar research was undertaken in 1992. The real figure could be at least double that.

Rough sleepers are four times more likely to die from unnatural causes such as accidents, alcohol, drugs, assault and suicide than the general population. They are also more than 50 times more likely to die from general assault and 35 times as likely to commit suicide.

Although the most common cause of death is natural causes, the average age at death is 46, indicating the homeless are dying well before their time.

The decrease in life expectancy is thought to be caused by the rising number of young homeless people on the streets plus difficulties in accessing the health care they need. Nearly 60 per cent of rough sleepers had at least one health problem, compared with 24 per cent of the general population. The most common conditions are respiratory illnesses, arthritis, epilepsy, skin complaints and tuberculosis.

Alcohol abuse formed part of the problem but not as much as is commonly thought. Alcohol abuse affects between a third and a half of rough sleepers compared with one in four of the general population. Drug-related problems were said to be on the increase, with 20 per cent of young homeless people misusing cannabis, amphetamines, cocaine, opiates and solvents.

Homelessness has a profound and damaging effect on mental health. The high incidence of serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, depression and anxiety, has been widely reported.

In 1996, the Office of National Statistics found that about 60 per cent of night- shelter and day-centre users were identified as having a serious mental health problem.

Crisis yesterday launched its national network of 27 emergency "Winterwatch" centres which have been shown to save lives. While there were slightly more deaths among the homeless in the winter months, the proportion was not substantially higher than the general population.

"Someone dies on the streets every five days in London alone," said Crisis's chief executive, Mark Scothern.

"They die well before their time in discomfort and without dignity. This cannot be allowed to continue.

"The winter shelters that opened yesterday save lives. But so much more still needs to be done.

"In the long term, it means putting an end to rough sleeping. In the shorter term, the research indicates that we must target services to getting people off the streets quickly and to help those with multiple problems."

t Still Dying For a Home is available from Crisis, price pounds 8.00. Telephone: 0171 377 0489.

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