On a sobering note during the festive period, the BBC today reported that homeless people “die 30 years younger” than the national average. The Daily Telegraph said that “homeless women die ‘by age 43’” while The Guardian said that homeless people have a “life expectancy of just 47”.
These headlines are based on initial findings of research into the age of death in homeless people carried out by the University of Sheffield and funded by the homeless charity Crisis. This research updated research carried out 15 years ago.
The new research found that the average homeless person has a life expectancy of 47, compared to 77 for the rest of the population: a startling difference of 30 years. The life expectancy for women was even lower, at just 43 years. Crisis has called on the government to address this by improving and prioritising health services for homeless people in NHS reforms.
This thought-provoking research has raised an important issue that is even more relevant in winter as temperatures plummet. Its findings are similar to those in recent government reports that have looked at health and death rates of homeless people, highlighting problems that they have accessing healthcare.
The media coverage around this research emphasised the stark difference between life expectancy of the homeless population in England and the rest of the population. The life expectancy of the homeless in England was reported to be similar to that of inhabitants in the war-stricken Democratic Republic of Congo, in central Africa.
What did the research look at?
The study looked at the age of death of single homeless people in England between 2001 and 2009. It used several sources of information, such as death certificates and official national death statistics, to determine whether the person was homeless and how old they were when they died. The initial findings are based on 1,731 people who were identified as homeless at the time of death. The next phase of this research will investigate cause of death by age and accommodation type and will analyse cause of death in more detail.
The definition of homelessness used in the report included people sleeping rough, in hostels and in other homeless situations. This was different from previous research, which focused on only rough sleepers and not those using night shelters and homeless hostels.
The research was carried out by Dr Bethan Thomas from the Geography department at the University of Sheffield. It was funded by the homeless charity, Crisis.
What did the research find?
The key points of the initial findings of the research are:
- The average age of death of a homeless person is 47 (43 for homeless women), compared to 77 for the general population.
- Drug and alcohol abuse are particularly common causes of death among the homeless population, accounting for just over a third of all deaths.
- Homeless people are more than nine times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
- Homeless people are more likely to die from external causes. Deaths as a result of traffic accidents are three times as likely, infections twice as likely and falls more than three times as likely for homeless people.
The Crisis report concluded that being homeless is both physically and mentally extremely challenging and has a significant impact on people’s health and wellbeing. Ultimately, they concluded, homelessness kills.
What is Crisis?
Crisis is a national charity for single homeless people. The charity aims to end homelessness by delivering education, employment and housing services and through campaigning for change in the future. Their work includes both preventing people from becoming homeless and finding solutions for those who are already homeless.
What did the report recommend?
The Crisis report made two main recommendations. First, that “steps must be taken to improve homeless people’s health”. This includes ensuring the needs of the homeless are met by future changes to the NHS, and improving access to the NHS by making it easier to register with a GP without having a permanent address. Crisis called for reform to current health services for homeless people to make sure they integrate and address both the mental and physical needs of the homeless.
Second, Crisis wants the law changed so that local authorities have a legal duty to give all single homeless people meaningful written advice, assistance and emergency accommodation when they need it. They say that, under existing law, most single homeless people are not considered a priority for housing and that some are turned away by their councils to face sleeping on the streets.
Where can I get help with homelessness and related health issues?
- If you are homeless, you’re still entitled to access free health services on the NHS and a right to choices about your care.
- Charities such as Crisis or Shelter can help you access health services.
- You can also contact your local council which will be able to provide information on local homeless services in your area and provide housing support and assistance.