Record number of suicides among homeless people as figure rises by 30% in a year

Two homeless people dying every day in 2019 – of which almost one in six self-inflicted – as campaigners warn that coronavirus pandemic has made streets ‘even more dangerous’

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 14 December 2020 17:27
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<p>Data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show suicides among homeless individuals surged by nearly a third (30 per cent) in a year</p>

Data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show suicides among homeless individuals surged by nearly a third (30 per cent) in a year

A record number of homeless people took their own lives last year, with a self-inflicted death recorded almost every three days, new figures show.

Data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that suicides among homeless individuals in England and Wales surged by almost a third (30 per cent) in a year, with an estimated 112 recorded in 2019, compared with 86 the previous year.

The number of suicides among the general population also increased, but at a much slower rate, with the figure rising by 5 per cent, from 5,420 in 2018 to 5,691 last year.

Overall, 778 deaths of homeless people were recorded last year, meaning that an average of two people died while homeless every day. That marks a 7 per cent increase on 2018 and is the highest number of estimated deaths since the ONS time series began in 2013. 

Campaigners warned that the coronavirus pandemic, which started after the data was captured, has made the streets even more dangerous for homeless people, and said that the “terrible loss” demonstrated in the figures must be a “catalyst for positive change” during the public health emergency.

The ONS data is primarily constituted from numbers of people sleeping rough or using emergency accommodation such as homeless shelters and direct access hostels, at or around the time of death.

Most deaths related to suicide, drugs or alcohol, with 37 per cent linked to drug poisoning and 10 per cent to alcohol-specific issues, the data shows.

The majority of homeless deaths in 2019 were among men – an estimated 687, or 88 per cent of the total. The mean age at death was 46 years for men and 43 years for women in 2019, compared with 76 and 81 among the general population respectively.

London and the northwest had the highest numbers of deaths in 2019, with 144 and 126 estimated deaths of homeless people respectively. The southwest had the highest mortality rate, with 27 people out of every one million dying homeless last year.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “It is awful to think so many people spent their final moments without a safe home in 2019. These figures show how incredibly dangerous homelessness, and especially rough sleeping, can be, even before we had a deadly pandemic to deal with.”

She said coronavirus had made the streets “even more dangerous” and warned that – even though thousands of people were offered accommodation at the start of lockdown in March – the economic fallout of the crisis meant that many more people would be facing the “trauma of homelessness” this winter.

“These are not just statistics; they are real people who have tragically lost their lives during a nationwide housing emergency. Today, it is important we remember them, and we use this terrible loss as a catalyst for positive change,” Ms Neate said.

“We must stand strong together in the face of this pandemic and call for everyone to have a safe and secure place to call home.”

Jon Sparkes, chief executive at Crisis, described the figures as “devastating”, adding that the considerable rise in the number of people taking their own lives was “particularly shocking”.

“Even without the threat of coronavirus it is clear that homelessness in and of itself is a serious threat to life. People experiencing homelessness still face huge health inequalities and many barriers to finding a safe and secure home,” he said.

"We urge the UK government to save lives by ensuring people who are homeless have prompt and equitable access to the coronavirus vaccine and by delivering the affordable housing we need to end homelessness for good.”

Jessica Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness, which researches the human stories behind the homeless deaths statistics, said she saw “all too clearly” the impact of a “decade of cuts to basic services such as mental health support”. 

“We and many others are bitterly frustrated and angry with the continuing increase in preventable deaths of people who are homeless; it is a damning indictment of our society,” she said.  

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: "Every death of someone sleeping rough on our streets is one too many. 

“That’s why we are investing over £700m to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness this year alone – as part of our mission to end rough sleeping for good.

“And today we have announced extra support for rough sleepers and vulnerable people to help them recover from drug and alcohol dependency.”

You can find helpful tips on how to start a conversation, or if you are worried about someone, on the Samaritans website

You can contact the Samaritans helpline by calling 116 123. The helpline is free and open 24 hours a day every day of the year.

You can also contact Samaritans by emailing jo@samaritans.org. The average response time is 24 hours.

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