Just over two years ago, during the bleak 2021 winter lockdown, I spent my Monday evenings volunteering for the Museum of Homelessness, doing outreach with rough sleepers in central London. We would trundle around Covent Garden, Holborn and the Strand offering hot drinks, sandwiches, chats and protection against the cold.
The government’s Everyone In programme meant that, for the most part, anyone who wanted a roof over their head could get one. The government-funded emergency scheme housed 37,000 people who were without a home during the pandemic, which it is estimated to have saved 266 lives. What was remarkable to many was the realisation that street homelessness could, largely, be ended if government decided it should.
Yet today, the Museum of Homelessness has revealed that 1,313 people died while homeless in 2022, a 20 per cent increase on 2021 in England and Wales. Most of those who died, 83 per cent, did have a roof over their head, usually a room in under-regulated and dangerous temporary housing, or exempt accommodation – a form of supported housing for people with significant needs or vulnerabilities. It is a shocking indictment of how the UK continues to fail people who are homeless.
According to the housing charity Shelter, there are just under 100,000 households, including 125,000 children, in temporary accommodation such as hostels and B&Bs across the UK. All of the evidence shows that prolonged stays in temporary housing are catastrophic to health, particularly for children. Last year, local governments spent around £1.6bn putting people in this housing, mostly owned by private companies or individuals. The government has done little to reduce the size of this market.
The picture in exempt accommodation may be much worse. The data is limited, as just 12 local councils collected information for the Museum of Homelessness on deaths in such housing. In Manchester, however, where statistics were collected, 109 homeless people died in exempt accommodation compared with 21 homeless people in any other type of temporary housing or on the street.
The other missing pieces are the UK’s crumbling mental health and addiction support services. These have long been an issue, with the public health budgets that fund addiction services cut by 26 per cent since 2015, while demand has risen. Addiction and mental health services for people who are homeless need to be specialised to unpick a lifetime of trauma, and many mainstream services cannot or will not help people with such complex needs. Just over one in three of those who died homeless did so because of drugs and alcohol, one in ten died by suicide. They were also young: 85 per cent were under the age of 65.
The pandemic showed that, with the political will, there are clear and effective ways to help people off the street, and decades of social policy have shown that a decent home and support can transform the life of someone who is homeless. By contrast, leaving people, families and children warehoused in temporary housing is corrosive to their wellbeing in every sense of the word. Each week they stay raises their risk of future homelessness, mental health issues and early death. But people who are homeless have usually been serially failed by services; why should they expect the government to be any differently?
[See also: Should we get rid of second homes?]