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Homeless deaths: caused by failures to think and act strategically?

02 October 2019

Hannah Ohagan Jim Ceo

Just as the Office of National Statistics announces that 2018’s homeless deaths in England and Wales have risen to the highest level on record, we’re in a position in Northern Ireland where pleas are being made to Westminster to continue Welfare Mitigation beyond March 2020 – something that is widely recognised as a practical and possible action that will keep people from entering into the cycle of homelessness. 

Whilst the ONS figures paint a picture of what is happening in England and Wales, the real picture across the United Kingdom is likely to be even grimmer with 166 homelessness deaths already recorded between January and June 2019 throughout Scotland and Northern Ireland. While the Museum of Homelessness has been nodding to a horrific UK statistic of one person dying every 19 hours due to homelessness, the ONS have pressed that this is more likely to be two people per day.

There can be no shying away from these statistics and action must be taken to ensure that more people are not placed in a position where they die whilst homeless. In Northern Ireland, Westminster should seriously consider extending Welfare Mitigation beyond March 2020 as an easy to implement means that will keep people from falling below the breadline, into poverty and onto homelessness. Whilst this is a practical and possible action that will give some breathing space to many NI citizens and the homelessness sector, there are much larger issues that need strategical thinking and response from decision makers at both a local and national level.

For years, Simon Community has funded an alcohol and addiction service because of the inextricable link between homelessness, addiction and death. The ONS figures of drug-related deaths surging by 55% since 2017 is sadly not surprising and something the charity have been witnessing, responding to and educating on. While there has been much more of a change in opinion towards addiction, their use is still being stereotyped as happening to only bad people, a result of poor choices and an act of criminality rather than being viewed as a symptom of an illness. 

Until there is collaborative working and strong leadership in appropriately responding to addition-related homelessness and deaths, then sadly we will be in a situation of simply adding to a tally year on year.

Homeless Deaths 2019B

Putting this into context, a homelessness death isn’t something that just creeps up on an individual – it is a result of a series of system failures. Last month, I had the privilege of meeting with a young man who walked me through his story. At aged 20, he lost his job because of an injury and was placed on Employment and Support Allowance and prescribed strong painkillers by his doctor. Within 6 months, the young man had developed a dependency on medication and resorted to street drugs when his pain medication was scaled back. His benefits payments were not enough to cover rent and he ended up homeless and living on the street. While on the streets, he was arrested and, having no address and breaking a previous bail condition, was sentenced to time in prison. Upon his release, he found himself and in the hostel cycle, with benefits reduced to just £85 per fortnight and still too ill to find and maintain employment. What’s scary is, there are very few options for him. 

Now aged 22, he is too young to claim benefits that would help him live independently, has a criminal conviction impacting chances of finding work, with a recurring injury reducing any likelihood of maintaining a job, and a substance addiction – all occurring during a period when vital services across the country are experiencing severe cuts. This is the type of person, of which there are many, who could have their homelessness wiped away with some simple changes to the system and more innovative thinking. Sadly though, the more plausible scenario is an increased level of needed support and care as clients spiral further into homelessness and associated negative impacts.

It is wrong in Northern Ireland, or anywhere in the UK, that a government oversees a system that actively increases the likelihood of someone becoming a future homelessness death statistic.

The solution is simple, invest in ending homelessness alongside a strategy that responds to addictions and the number of homelessness deaths will fall!

Jim Dennison – Chief Executive, Simon Community NI