Scotland’s national records office has said it will undertake a review that could see it count the deaths of homeless people for the first time.
The announcement comes after The Ferret – working in partnership with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – found that at least 94 people had died while homeless in Scotland in the last twelve months.
They included those who were sleeping rough as well as homeless people in temporary accommodation such as hostels and bed and breakfasts. Those sofa surfing or homeless but in hospital or prison were also counted.
In Glasgow alone 47 people died while homeless since October 2017. One died in the city’s winter night shelter, others in hostels around the city. In Edinburgh 22 homeless people died including two sleeping rough on the streets, one on a night when temperatures fell to minus five.
Many local authorities under-reported numbers or did not provide statistics requested. Currently no official statistics are collected despite calls to measure the number in the same way as drug deaths are recorded.
In the course of its investigation it was contacted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which records deaths in England. It confirmed it is producing experimental data on the deaths of homeless people in England and Wales, which it plans to publish later this year. The Bureau’s database is one of the research tools it is using.
Now the National Records of Scotland (NRS) has said it is in touch with ONS about its report and will be reviewing its own policy and practice.
“At present, the homeless status of people who die in Scotland isn’t recorded on death certificates, which means that it isn’t possible to identify cases where a deceased person was homeless,” an NRS spokesperson told The Ferret.
“NRS is in contact with the Office for National Statistics, which is currently investigating to see how best to record homeless status of deceased people. We will review our practices and methodology in light of their findings.”
The review was widely welcomed by charities and politicians who said it was important that more data was made available.
According to research by the homeless charity, Crisis, the average age of death for homeless men is 47, and 43 for women. For the general population it is 74 for men and 80 for women. Recent research by the Scottish Government also confirmed homeless people are at much greater risk of premature death than the general population.
Graeme Brown, director of Shelter Scotland, said: “We welcome this commitment from National Records of Scotland to review how the deaths of people who are homeless are currently recorded. Shelter Scotland believes that the deaths of people who are homeless should be recorded so we can try to learn more about how to prevent this tragic loss of life.”
We owe it to all the people who have died while homeless to do better. Jon Sparkes, Crisis
Jon Sparkes, the Crisis chief executive who chaired the Scottish Government’s Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group in 2017, argued that accurate data was essential to understanding the scale of the problem and how to address it. Research showed an “inextricable link” between homelessness and higher death rates and action was urgently needed, he said.
“We owe it to all the people who have died while homeless to do better, and good data will provide everyone working across homelessness services with valuable information that could help them prevent the deaths of these vulnerable people in the future,” Sparkes added.
“We know that homelessness is not inevitable and by working together across local and central governments, public services, charities and with the support of the public we can work together to end all forms of homelessness – once and for all. There is no excuse for this tragedy to carry on.”
Pauline McNeill MSP, Scottish Labour spokeswoman on housing, said: “I wholeheartedly support the calls for a record to be taken of the number of rough sleeping deaths in Scotland. It’s outrageous that at the moment we aren’t recording the terrible consequences of homelessness.”
According to the Scottish Government, a data report on health and homelessness produced in June last year was already informing policy “across a number of areas”. Ministers have accepted recommendations by the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group on improving measures on rough sleeping and are “committed to considering how to take forward action”.
The government is also working with the Centre for Homelessness Impact to look at how it collects data on rough sleeping in Scotland. Rough sleeping “counts” are done in England, but are not widely done in Scotland, with numbers collected in Glasgow and Edinburgh so far not used as official figures.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Data and evidence are key to developing effective and sustainable solutions, and we welcome the National Records of Scotland review.”
On 31 October London figures from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network based on street counts revealed that 3,103 people were found sleeping rough in London between July and September 2018, the first time levels have risen to over 3,000 in a single quarter.