The number of rough sleepers being admitted to hospital has surged by 130 per cent in five years – and more than 500 admissions each week now relate to homelessness.
Nearly 28,000 people were admitted to hospital in England with a primary or secondary diagnosis of homelessness in 2018-19 – up from 24,500 the previous year, a report by the King’s Fund reveals.
It said rough sleepers often find it hard to access services due to practical barriers such as not owning a phone, as well as the belief among some staff that patients need a home address to register for GP services.
This can often lead to health issues not being picked up until they are more serious and require hospital treatment, said the researchers.
The report comes after government statistics published last week revealed an estimated 4,266 people were sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2019. This is down 9 per cent on the same figures a year before, but campaigners branded the data “misleading” after separate figures showed nearly 28,000 people slept rough in 2019.
The King’s Fund study shows the average age of death for those who died while homeless in England and Wales in 2018 was 45 for males and 43 for females – more than 30 years below that of the general population.
Around a third of these deaths are the result of treatable medical conditions like respiratory disease and HIV, according to the report.
Dena Pursell, who slept rough on the street from the age of 16 to 19 and experienced several health issues as a result, said: “I used to have really bad breathing problems – I got bronchitis when I was first out on the street.
“I did try to register with a doctor, but they weren’t having it because I had no address. Most of the services I went to I found that people would give me clothes and food, but they wouldn’t help with any other problems I had like anxiety or depression.
“People do need help. You can’t just put someone in a house who hasn’t had one for years and put a roof over their head and expect everything to be hunky dory, it’s not going to be. There’s a lot of other issues that have probably caused that person to be in that situation.”
The King’s Fund said people sleeping rough rarely fit neatly into service specifications. They called for health, housing and care staff to be given greater flexibility to look beyond tight eligibility criteria for services and “do the right thing” for the individual.
Julia Cream, fellow at the think tank and lead author of the report, said: “People who sleep rough are living on the margins of society and […] can face a toxic combination of drug and alcohol dependence, poor mental health, childhood trauma, abuse, and domestic violence.
“No one agency has all the solutions – health, housing, care and criminal justice all have to work hand in hand. Our research shows that the health and care of people who sleep rough can be improved when long-term funding is combined with local collaboration, listening to the needs of people who sleep rough and enabling staff to do the right thing.”
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of homelessness charity Crisis, said the fact that more and more people were being admitted to hospital as a consequence of homelessness “must serve as a wake up call” to the government.
He continued: “Having somewhere safe and stable to call home means someone is much less likely to develop health problems – yet another reason why it is so crucial the government takes action to tackle the root causes of homelessness, such as raising the rates of housing benefit and building more social homes, so that people are not forced into homelessness in the first place."
A government spokesperson said: “We're committed to ensuring people have a roof over their heads and access to the right health services. We expect local authorities to work closely with clinical commissioning groups to commission services for everyone — and we’re changing the law to make sure they prioritise homeless people.
“We’re investing £1.2bn to tackle all forms of homelessness and our Rough Sleeping Strategy, will help people off the streets and into homes. The NHS Long Term Plan also commits up to £30m extra over five years to meet the health needs of rough sleepers.”
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