Charities are demanding urgent action to prevent a “tragic” loss of lives, as updated figures reveal at least 139 people have died while homeless in Scotland over the last 18 months.
In October the Ferret reported that 94 people had died on the street, in temporary or supported homeless accommodation including hostels and bed and breakfasts. They included a 43-year-old man in the Glasgow Night Shelter, and a former veteran sleeping rough in Edinburgh.
Now freedom of information requests by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) have found a further 45 deaths logged by local authorities. They include 22 deaths in Glasgow between 1 November and 29 January, where at least four people died on the street.
One woman, understood to be in her early thirties, was found dead in a tent near the city centre by police, in mid-January. The body of another homeless man was found behind an industrial bin in the same month.
Others died in hostels including council commissioned services, and bed and breakfasts used as emergency accommodation for homeless people.
Many of the recent Glasgow deaths are thought to be connected with street valium – most commonly etizolam – with the council issuing warnings about the dangers earlier this year. The new figures bring the Glasgow total to 64 over 18 months.
The new figures show two people died in temporary homeless accommodation in Renfrewshire, one in East Ayrshire and other in Stirling.
In total at least 798 people across the UK have died while homeless since October 2017, an average of 11 people per week according to the figures gathered as part of the Dying Homeless project.
More than a quarter were under 40, and died from a range of seemingly preventable or treatable causes including tuberculosis, cancers, liver damage, sepsis, violent attacks, drug overdoses and suicide.
TBIJ also commissioned research by University College London (UCL), which showed hundred of people in England have died from preventable and treatable conditions.
Academics at UCL explored nearly 4,000 in-depth medical records for 600 people that died while homeless in England, between 2013 and 2017. It claimed nearly a third (30 per cent) of homeless deaths were from treatable conditions that could have improved with the right medical care.
Researchers did not study any deaths in Scotland.
Hugh Hill, operations manager of the Simon Community, which provides street outreach services and supported accommodation in Glasgow, said the charity had been struck by the increasing number of deaths in the city in recent months. His staff may also have saved many more lives, he claimed.
In the first two months of this year, support staff administered naloxone, a drug used to block the effects of opiates, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) 35 times. Over the whole of 2018, they did this 70 times.
“We continue to be deeply concerned by the risks people are exposed to and the significant increase in drug related deaths in Glasgow and across Scotland,” Hill added.
“The people we have lost have been some of the most vulnerable and excluded in our society. It is a tragic loss for people who have experienced significant trauma.
“Often drugs and alcohol are their way of coping when mental health and recovery services fail them. At the end of the day it’s a life of opportunity and hope lost. Each time someone has lost a son or daughter.”
Hill claimed a “joined up approach” to tackling the number of deaths was still lacking, with information and resources shared across the city and beyond. “If we all work together there is a better chance we can save lives,” he argued.
He is also concerned that the situation may become normalised. “We’re also hearing that the 999 emergency response may have been downgraded with multiple reports that response times have significantly increased,” he said. “In one case in Lanarkshire paramedics didn’t attend on two occasions.”
Behind these statistics are individual people who died in desperately sad circumstances. Graeme Brown, Shelter Scotland
Shelter Scotland called for every death to be reviewed, allowing important lessons to be learned that could save lives. “Behind these statistics are individual people who died in desperately sad circumstances,” said director, Graeme Brown.
“Shelter Scotland believes every one of these deaths should be reviewed as a matter of routine to identify systemic issues, which may be contributing to this tragic loss of life.”
Brown added: “Much is already known about the risks that people face if they are not given access to both appropriate housing and support tailored to meet their needs – so in addition to investigation we must see national and local government act to prevent these deaths.”
Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at the homeless campaign, Crisis, called on governments to urgently expand the systems used to investigate the deaths of vulnerable adults to include all those who have died while homeless.
“Ultimately, 800 people dying homeless is unacceptable. We have the solutions to ensure no one has to spend their last days without a safe, stable roof over their head,” he said.
“By tackling the root causes of homelessness, like building the number of social homes we need and making sure our welfare system is there to support people when they fall on hard times, governments in England, Scotland and Wales can build on the positive steps they’ve already taken to reduce and ultimately end homelessness.”
The Dying Homeless project had helped shed new light on the issue, he added. The Office of National Statistics has come to count deaths and Scotland’s national records office has promised a review.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has announced that it will no longer record homeless deaths. It is passing the task to the London-based Museum of Homelessness, whose co-founder, Jess Turtle, promised “continue to honour these lives” and “to campaign for change as long as is necessary”.
The Scottish Government stressed the efforts it was making to tackle homelessness. “The avoidable death of any vulnerable person in our society is a tragedy,” the Scottish housing minister, Kevin Stewart, told The Ferret.
“Preventing and ending homelessness and rough sleeping are priorities for us and we are working with partners to transform the system so people can secure a permanent home, far more quickly, with support for their health and wellbeing if they need it.”
He added: “Expert advice makes clear that just providing someone with a house will not always be enough, especially if they have complex needs such as an alcohol or drug addiction. Our recently published Ending Homelessness Together action plan, in combination with other government strategies on mental health and addictions, sets out how we are acting together across public services to implement shared solutions to these complex issues.”