Labour has demanded that the government take urgent action to protect rough sleepers as the Office for National Statistics revealed the highest number of estimated deaths of homeless people since the time series began in 2013.
The party has highlighted the alarming data released by the independent statistics authority this morning, which showed that 778 people died homeless in 2019 and that suicide rates among rough sleepers increased by 30% in just one year.
Labour has warned that the pandemic will increase the risks associated with sleeping rough this winter and said homelessness services have told the party that they will not have the tools they would usually to help people off the streets.
Commenting on the figures, Shadow Housing Secretary Thangam Debbonaire said: “The rapid increase in these deaths over the last six years is a shameful sign of government failure and should raise alarm at the top of government.
“Before the Covid crisis, a record number of people were dying while homeless. This winter will be even more dangerous. The government must commit that nobody will spend Christmas on the streets – this is a matter of life or death.
The intervention from Debbonaire follow a letter from Keir Starmer sent to Boris Johnson earlier today, in which the Labour leader warned that rough sleeping is “just the tip of an iceberg” of poverty and destitution this winter.
Starmer urged Johnson to work with councils and mayors to ensure access to Covid-secure shelter ahead of a visit to the West Midlands to meet with homelessness projects in Worcester and food poverty campaigners in Birmingham today.
The Labour leader also warned that Tory policies had “pushed so many more into hardship” even before Covid. Research recently found that destitution increased by 54% between 2017-19, with 2.4 million adults and 500,000 children affected.
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Reynolds called on the government to provide more support for families struggling over the winter this year following the publication of the figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last week.
The party called early last month for an urgent restart of the ‘Everyone In’ scheme, implemented during the first wave of the pandemic, to protect rough sleepers as the country prepared for its second lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus.
The policy introduced in March allocated £3.2m for local authorities and charities to expand the provision of emergency hotel and hostel accommodation for rough sleepers, saving an estimated 266 people from death.
Below is the full text of the letter sent by the Labour leader today.
Dear Prime Minister,
At this time of year, the sight of vulnerable people sleeping rough becomes more visceral than ever. It should shock and shame us all that in the UK in 2020, anyone should be spending Christmas alone and on the streets.
Before the Covid crisis, rough sleeping was a shameful sign of government failure. We went into this pandemic with twice as many people sleeping rough than in 2010, affecting towns and cities across the country.
This winter, the situation facing rough sleepers is more desperate than ever. Temperatures dropped below 0C across parts of the country last week, but Covid restrictions have caused a drastic reduction in emergency night shelter accommodation. Thousands of rough sleepers risk missing out on life-saving shelter this winter unless the government supports councils and charities to provide Covid-secure shelter.
Rough sleeping is a crisis which you pledged to end for good. But it is just the tip of an iceberg – the sharp end of a broken housing system and a society with gaping holes in its safety net. Many more people, many of them families with children, will experience homelessness, poverty and destitution this winter.
The community action we have seen during this pandemic, and the huge support for Marcus Rashford’s campaign on free school meals, has shown the empathy of the British public. However, we have to ask why so many people are in such need in the first place.
Even before the pandemic hit, poverty, hunger and homelessness were widespread. 2.4 million people and 500,000 children experienced destitution in 2019, an increase of more than 50% in only two years. This rise in poverty and destitution is no accident. It is a direct result of government policy which has pushed so many more into hardship.
That’s why I am writing today to urge you to act on these injustices by ensuring access to safe, Covid-secure accommodation for those that need it. And to tackle the root causes of homelessness and destitution – such as unaffordable housing, low pay, and insecure work – so that next winter, fewer children will go to bed hungry at Christmas.
I implore you to act. Poverty fell under the last Labour government as a result of its determination and delivery. It can be done, if there is the political will to do it.
Keir Starmer MP