Homeless people must be given “more than just a roof over their heads,” say campaigners, after official figures revealed a record number died last year.
The figures, which included a record number of drug related deaths, increased despite work done across Scotland to make sure no-one remained on the streets during lockdown.
The “shocking” figures released by the National Records of Scotland show an estimated 256 homeless people – including those in temporary accommodation – died last year. The majority – 59 per cent – were under 45 when they died.
The number rose despite the work of the Everyone In programme, under which local authorities were given funding to ensure no-one was left sleeping rough during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The statistics count those in temporary accommodation such as hostels and homeless B&Bs as well as those on the streets. Over half – 59 per cent – were drug related deaths, which campaigners said highlighted the urgent need for drug consumption rooms (DCRs) to be legalised in Scotland.
The percentage of drug related homeless deaths has been increasing year-on-year since 2017, in line with rises in homeless deaths themselves.
The decision to collate the figures in Scotland and England and Wales followed a year long investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism into the number of people dying across the country.
Through a series of freedom of information requests and personal testimonies, The Ferret reported in October 2018 that at least two people were dying every week, with the number expected to be far higher. In February 2020 the National of Records published official estimates for the first time, estimating 164 deaths in 2017 and 195 in 2018.
The newly released figures for 2020 – which record an increase of almost 20 per cent on the previous year – show that deaths are not connected to the highest levels of homelessness. Local authorities with the highest death rate per million population included West Dunbartonshire (196), Inverclyde (123) and South Ayrshire (115).
The highest number of homeless deaths last year was in May, when 29 people died. The Ferret has previously heard that during lockdown many people struggled to access drug and alcohol services.
197 people who died were men, and 18 of them were 15-24 years old. Six of the 60 women who died were in that age bracket.
Jess Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness, which took over the Dying Homeless project from the Bureau, said her team were “deeply saddened and outraged by the increase in deaths of people who are homeless, especially in a year when people should have been safer through the Everyone In programme”.
She added: “Our report published in February 2021 calls for responses to homelessness that acknowledge a roof is not enough. People need meaning, purpose, care and genuinely supportive relationships in their lives too, especially those of us who are trauma survivors.”
“We are also very concerned about the deepening addiction crisis, which there is much evidence is also linked to trauma. We applaud the work of [campaigner] Peter Krykant and we welcome attempts by Scottish MPs to introduce a drug consumption facility (DCR) in Scotland.
In September, the project wrote to the Home Secretary urging the UK Government to allow local authorities the discretion to develop “trauma informed, carefully evaluated pilots of DCRs as part of their integrated response to tackling the harms associated with substance use”.
She claimed the new figures showed the situation “could not be more urgent”. Currently no drug consumption facilities – which are legal in countries such as Canada and Denmark – are operational.
According to David Liddell, chief executive of Scottish Drugs Forum, the isolation and changes of routine associated with lockdown impacted significantly on people’s mental health.
He added: “Sadly, for many vulnerable people affected by issues like homelessness and problem substance use, changes to service delivery will have meant their usual support has changed, been reduced or withdrawn altogether.
For many people there can be short and temporary periods when they may, tragically, feel an ambivalence about whether they live or die. For people with a drug problem, these circumstances result in an elevated risk of overdose.”
He claimed caution was needed in categorisations of deaths as sucide or overdose as they were not always conclusive. According to the NRS figures seven per cent died by suicide.
“The term ‘deaths of despair’ has been used recently and this offers some insight into the complex relationships between mental health, problem substance use and trauma as well as personal circumstances like homelessness,” Liddell said.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said it was “shocking” that even more people died last year than previously. He stressed it was important to remember them as people, not numbers. “They formed a part of our communities and they will be missed,” he added.
“Homelessness is an injustice, but it is also a public health emergency. Far too many lives have been cut short and many of these deaths will have been avoidable. That is unacceptable. We need to learn from these failings and put in place measures to stop this from happening again.”
Alison Watson, director of Shelter Scotland, said the increase in the number of people dying while waiting for a permanent place to live was “extremely worrying”.
“People without a secure home struggle to access the support they require and with over half (59 per cent) of deaths of people experiencing homelessness being drug related,” she added. “This shows the high level of need.”
Housing Secretary Shona Robison said every single one of the deaths captured by the “concerning” figures was a “tragedy”.
“This shows why we must go even further in our efforts to end homelessness and rough sleeping for good,” she added.
“Scotland already has some of the strongest homelessness rights in the world, and we are working to strengthen these even further. We will be introducing new laws to prevent homelessness before it occurs, and improving co-operation between health and housing services, with specific measures to help those with more complex needs.”
She claimed the First Minister’s “national mission” to cut the number of drug-related deaths in Scotland, with funding of £250 million over the next five years, was also an important part of the picture.
In addition, she added, the Scottish Government has invested £50 million over this parliamentary term to end homelessness and rough sleeping, including support for rapid rehousing and Housing First, as well as funding work on mental health recovery and substance treatment services.
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