Hi Reader Friend,
Two of my kids went back to school this week. Thought I would love it, but have actually found it really difficult. But throwing myself into research and writing is helping. Hope you are coping okay. Please get in touch if you aren’t.
This week, I’m looking at the deaths of men and women who were homeless. Thanks for tuning in. Would love to you subscribe for more (it’s free, just plug your email in at the bottom of this page). If you’re not seeing these emails, make sure you mark them as ‘safe’ so they don’t go to spam. Would love you to engage and let me know your thoughts. Finally, if you want to support my writing, you can ‘buy me a coffee’. Without further ado.
This week, figures were released from The Dying Homeless Project that 1000 homeless people died in the UK in 2020, more than a third higher than the previous year. Of the deaths, only 3% were attributed to Covid-19. Instead, lack of access to healthcare, social housing, homelessness provision, substance misuse treatment, and suicide were factors that lead to the majority of the deaths.
These are individuals who have been forgotten by many, both in their living and in their deaths. But they were human beings, living people. With histories, preferences, family. They are not just statistics that we should pass over lightly.
To immerse myself in stories, I found an interactive map which includes tributes to the men and women who have died homeless.
Alan, who became homeless when his mother died at 21. After not finding work, he ended up on the streets. He volunteered, enjoyed singing, and even lobbied for the Homeless Reduction Act. He died homeless at 61. No family were found to attend his funeral.
Stefania was described as a 40-year-old-woman who often had swollen hands and joints, occasionally a black eye. She had moved from Italy not too many years ago and lost her factory job in the UK. She had problems with drugs and alcohol, but still managed to help mothers with prams to get up and down stairs at the subway. Those very stairs ended up killing her when she fell down them, injured her knee, had to have surgery, and following discharge, developed sepsis and died.
Danny was a 28-year-old student in a homeless hostel, apparently funny and kind. He often joked, but his jokes caried sadness of his alcohol addiction. He created a Christmas card for a tutor of his, who wrote the tribute to him. Danny died in his room at the hostel through an alcohol-related illness.
The tributes continued on. Putting skin to the statistics. Warmth to the news stories.
Among the deaths in 2020, 36% were related to drug and alcohol use. Could part of the reason there is a lack of concern about the number of deaths related to substance misuse be a ‘holier than thou’ attitude adopted by our government which lacks understanding about the addiction issues that plague those individuals? An attitude that shrugs it off as a lack of control or bad choices that could have been avoided? Or perhaps it is a complete misunderstanding of what addiction is and what causes it.
When I spoke to Caroline Bernard, of Homeless Link, she explained that when considering the root cause of addiction, “the impact of multiple disadvantage should be considered, such as childhood trauma, time in the criminal justice system and mental ill health, which can all lead to addiction.”
Our eyes need adjusting, our perceptions altered. When we are walking through town, quickly passing a homeless man or woman that is clearly under the influence of a substance, what do we think or assume about that person? What judgments do we make? He is a person. She has story.
Deborah Klee, specialist in safeguarding adults, explained further: “I have found that in many cases people who are homeless and dependent on alcohol or substance misuse have experienced trauma, for example, child sexual exploitation and/or domestic violence.”
She continued, “Unfortunately, the stigma associated with substance misuse and alcoholism can prevent a homeless person from accessing services. Trauma counselling often requires a person to be abstinent for a period of time before commencing treatment which is a challenge for someone living on the streets as they wait between rehab finishing and counselling commencing. Unless a person receives this psychological support and intervention, they are unlikely to stop drinking and/or using substances to help them cope with the trauma.”
This isn’t just a case of fixing oneself. It isn’t that easy or straightforward. Those struggling with addiction while homeless need help. But addiction services have been massively cut back in the last couple of years. In 2019, these cuts made news several times when it was reported that one in five local authorities in England had cut drug treatment service budgets by more than half since 2016. This includes rehab, detox programmes, and therapeutic intervention. Without programmes easily available, less people will be able to access the help they need with their addictions. More people will become homeless to fund their addictions that stem from trauma and mental health issues. And we will continue to see a rising number of deaths among the homeless community due to addiction.
What can be done? Cuts to specialist substance misuse and mental health services must be reversed. You can write to your MP about this and protest austerity. There are campaigns being run by Shelter and St. Mungo’s that you can join. And if you want to get to know men and women who are homeless, you can volunteer or donate at your local homelessness provider.
1000 homeless people died last year. May they be remembered in the way we fight against the possibility of further deaths.