Homeless Deaths - more than a number

The reportage of these statistics simply reinforces the message to the public that homelessness is absolute rooflessness.

Being a homeless rough sleeper halves your life expectancy. Whilst a woman today has a life expectancy of 81 it is just 43 for a female who is either street homeless or in an emergency shelter. 726 homeless people died in Britain during 2018 according to the Office of National Statistics: a 22% increase on 2017. Birmingham with 23 deaths had the highest recorded number for any local authority in England and Wales. Owing to the methods employed these figures represent the minimum level of mortality and the true totals are likely to be higher still.

Some of the recent newspaper copy of these statistics has been accompanied by images of the rough sleeper that presents the homeless as passive, alien, dehumanised and diseased. And therein rests the problem, we want to care, but the manner in which we engage suggests we have a problem with the homeless. Many of the reports after expressing anxiety over the shocking numbers have placed emphasis on the analysis that two in five deaths are due to drug poisoning. Further stigmatising the homeless person.

There is no longitudinal data, beyond 2013, for homeless deaths, but to a historian of homelessness in modern Britain, death on the streets (or countryside) comes as no surprise, tragic as it maybe. The discovery of an unknown body of no fixed abode were regularly described by newspapers from at least the mid-nineteenth century.  It is how these deaths are reported that can in part explain the ambiguity of modern public responses to the homeless, and the suspicion that many find themselves in this predicament because of personal fault or poor lifestyle choices.

Two historic examples illustrate the ambiguity of response to the homeless. An unknown elderly gentleman was found dead in a haystack in 1906 near Cropwell Bishop, but presumed on the basis of his clothing to be a tramp. The police decided to circulate a photograph of the deceased enabling a laundress from near Bath to claim the body as that of her absent husband. With identification the press reportage transformed the man from being an idle tramp to a genuine worker, a man ‘on the road’ seeking work to support his wife, a man who left behind a ‘well-liked’ and ‘respectable’ widow. In the same year, during a ferocious winter storm, a family allowed an elderly female vagrant to shelter in their pigsty. They denied her access to their home for fear she was verminous, but provided hot food and drink morning and night, until it became apparent that the woman was succumbing to exposure when the police were called, but too late to save her life.

There is also a difficulty with the application of the label homeless to these deaths. The rough sleeper and emergency hostel user represent only the most extreme form of the homelessness spectrum. The reportage of these statistics simply reinforces the message to the public that homelessness is absolute rooflessness. It overlooks the thousands of families who are in temporary emergency accommodation, or individuals sofa surfing, and the known risks to health and morbidity that these secondary forms of homelessness pose.

Nicholas Crowson, Professor of Contemporary History, University of Birmingham.