Figures reveal that at least 18 homeless people – more than one every three weeks – died on the streets of Scotland’s capital city in just one year.

The City of Edinburgh Council statistics – obtained through a freedom of information request – show that ten men and eight women assessed to be homeless died while sleeping rough between April 2015 and March 2016.

Campaigners and charities said the numbers of people dying in Edinburgh, which is the 16th richest city in Europe, were “shameful” and “unacceptable”.

Several of them called for a new national strategy to be put in place to address the issue.

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The newly released figures come just weeks after it was revealed that 39 street homeless people had died in Glasgow between May 2016 and March 2017, highlighting a growing crisis in the west coast city.

The “truly awful” Edinburgh figures show that two of the 18 who died were under 30 with the majority in the 30–50 age bracket.

However, the council said it did not hold information on the cause of death and declined to say how many had been in touch with council services to request assistance.

In England an estimated 4,134 people slept outside in 2016, an increase of 16 percent on the previous year and more than double the 2010 figure.

In Scotland, where there is no national figure, Shelter estimate that about 5,000 people sleep rough.

Each one of these deaths represents a human life lost too soon. Adam Lang, Shelter Scotland

Edinburgh council claimed in 2015 that it had fewer people on the streets than any other Scottish city, suggesting just three per cent of those presenting were rough sleepers.

However in a report, commissioned by the local authority last year, Shelter found a total of 1,976 people had slept on the streets of the capital over a two-year period.

This winter 700 people used Bethany Trust’s Care Shelter, which housed an average 47 homeless men and women, sleeping on mats on the floor, each night for six months.

Homeless charities such as Crisis claim that many end up on the streets because they have been turned away from statutory homeless services and have no other options. Yet research shows that rough sleeping is dangerous.

The average age of a homeless person when they die is just 47, and they are 17 times more likely to be a victim of violence.

Nearly one in four women are victims of sexual assault and both men and women often develop drug and alcohol addictions while on the streets.

A number of leading homeless organisations, including Crisis and Shelter Scotland, are now calling for a strategic approach to homelessness to be taken on by the Scottish Government.

Ann Landels, director of Crisis Scotland, said: “These are truly awful figures, and a desperate reminder of the dangers faced by those who have no choice but to sleep on the streets.

“Scotland has made considerable progress in the fight against homelessness, but we’ve seen rising demand for rough sleeper shelters in Glasgow and Edinburgh over the winter, and homelessness is increasingly visible on the streets of our cities.

“We are concerned that behind the statistics there may be growing numbers who have simply fallen off the radar.”

Adam Lang, head of policy at Shelter Scotland, added: “It is simply shameful and unacceptable that this is happening in 21st century Scotland. Sadly, we know that homelessness is still far from fixed in Edinburgh and across Scotland today.

“Each one of these deaths represents a human life lost too soon. And while we can’t be sure that all of them are directly attributable to homelessness, they are tragic and deeply concerning.”

He urged both local and Scottish governments to get to grips with the issue addressing it “head-on as a matter of urgency”.

Jan Williamson, head of services at Streetwork – a charity offering outreach services to rough sleepers in the capital – said that the figure could well be higher as information was often not shared between third sector, NHS and local authority services.

“It is very difficult to know accurately how many lives and years are lost to homelessness as there is no systematic recording or tracking system in place,” she added.

“Many of the people we have supported over the years simply disappear. We hope for many that it’s about a good outcome but we simply don’t know.

“So whilst we can’t say with confidence how many people homeless people are dying, we can be certain that it’s far too many.”

Beth Watts, of Herriot Watt University’s institute for social policy, housing and equality research, said that the figures were horrifying.

“Concerted evidence-informed action is required to better address the multiple and complex needs of those on the streets,” she added.

She claimed that the Scottish Government should prioritise a national roll-out of Housing First, a scheme imported from the US which aims to offer accommodation first to those with complex needs before supporting them with issues like addictions.

A spokeswoman for the City of Edinburgh Council said: “Protecting vulnerable people continues to be our key priority.

“We are committed to reducing homelessness across Edinburgh and with partner agencies offer an extensive range of services to people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, from support and advice on housing options, to assessment services and accommodation.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson claimed that Scotland had some of the strongest housing rights for homeless people anywhere in the world but conceded: “We recognise that for some people, who may have more complex needs or be rough sleeping, simply providing accommodation is not always enough to address their homelessness.

“The avoidable death of any vulnerable person without our society is deeply regrettable and cause for concern.”

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In detail

Header photo credit: Gary Knight | CC |