The scandalous number of homeless people being admitted to hospital has just exploded

Homeless person sleeping on the streets
Steve Topple

A study has revealed that the number of homeless people ending up in hospital has rocketed by 130% in just five years. It comes as the government says it aims to end rough sleeping by 2024. But given the controversy over its last estimate of the number of rough sleepers, it’s unlikely the government will, or even wants to, meet this target.

Homeless people: more staggering figures

On Tuesday 3 March, thinktank the King’s Fund released a report into homelessness. While the full report did not mention the number of hospital admissions, a press release told a different story. As 24Housing reported:

The number of rough sleepers being admitted to hospital has risen by 130% over the past five years – and more than 500 admissions each week now relate to homelessness…

nearly 28,000 people were admitted to hospital in England with a primary or secondary diagnosis of homelessness in 2018-19 – up from 24,500 the previous year.

This comes as official government figures claimed rough sleeping fell by 9% between 2018 and 2019. But as Homeless Link reported, this was still a 141% increase since 2010. BBC research found that in one year more than 28,000 people slept rough.

So, the rise in hospital admissions is not surprising. But the King’s Fund found multiple reasons why the figures had rocketed.

Multiple problems

It noted:

people who sleep rough face barriers to accessing health and care services, including attitudes of some staff, complex administration processes and previous negative experiences. This means continuity of care is a challenge and health issues may not be picked up until they become acute.

Added to this, the King’s Fund said:

health problems can also be a cause of homelessness or a barrier to exiting rough sleeping. Health, housing and wider support needs are deeply interconnected – there is a need for an integrated response across a wide range of partners including health services, local government and the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector (VCSE), as well as a range of other organisations such as the police, the wider local economy and the local community.

A cross-agency approach?

It said four areas needed to be addressed:

  • “Build and support the workforce to go above and beyond”. This included making systems “flex” more so rough sleepers had “effective support”.
  • “Prioritise relationships”. The King’s Fund said staff should be working together across services.
  • “Tailor the response”. It said an “off-the-shelf approach” to rough sleepers’ health doesn’t work.
  • “Use the power of commissioning”. The King’s Fund said that services should be “integrated” to deal with the “complexity” of rough sleepers’ needs.

There’s a pertinent example of how all four of these action points needs to be addressed. Because with the coronavirus now rapidly spreading, writer Alex Tiffin noted on Twitter: “This is a very very good question. Where do homeless people self isolate in the event… they’ve been in contact with a #coronavirus patient? Additional support needs introducing ASAP.”

So far, that extra support appears to be non-existent.

Papering over the cracks

But, of course, none of this would be needed if the government actually tackled the root causes of rough sleeping in the first place. The report’s lead author Julia Cream said:

People who sleep rough are living on the margins of society and […] can face a toxic combination of drug and alcohol dependence, poor mental health, childhood trauma, abuse, and domestic violence.

And moreover, the King’s Fund report was actually commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. So whether this is just lip-service by the government or a commitment remains to be seen. As one Twitter user noted, it may just be:

Another report to be buried.

The King’s Fund is correct to say that cross-agency working is needed to tackle the scourge of homelessness and rough sleeping. But until we also address society’s gaping inequalities and a system that just entrenches these, anything else is just papering over the cracks.

Featured image via Unsplash – Jon Tyson

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