The Museum of Homelessness hosted a memorial for all the people who died while homeless in 2020. Credit: Anthony Luvera
The number of people who died while homeless in Scotland surged by almost 20 per cent in 2020 as the country’s battle against drug abuse continued to drive a heavy death toll.
An estimated 256 people died while experiencing homelessness in Scotland in 2020, according to the National Records of Scotland’s annual official count, signalling a rise of 40 deaths on 2019 levels.
The experimental figures, which are created by analysing death certificates and through modelling, showed Covid-19 had little impact on mortality among people experiencing homelessness in Scotland with no deaths attributed to the virus.
Instead the stats painted a grim picture of Scotland’s wider battle with drug addiction as rising deaths attributed to substance abuse made up more than half the deaths among people living on the streets or in non-permanent accommodation.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “It’s shocking that even more people died while experiencing homelessness last year. Behind every one of these statistics is a real person, with friends and families. They formed a part of our communities and they will be missed.
“We need to learn from these failings and put in place measures to stop this from happening again. We’ve long known how damaging homelessness can be for someone’s health and it is vital that we act now to prevent people from losing their homes.”
Within Scotland, West Dunbartonshire, Inverclyde and South Ayrshire had the highest rates of homeless deaths while six local authority areas had no deaths.
Most of the people who died were men – amounting to 77 per cent – while just under a quarter of the people who lost their lives were identified as women.
The statistics showed the majority of men and women experiencing homelessness die under the age of 45 with 57 per cent and 65 per cent deaths under that age respectively.
Most deaths were also attributed to external causes of morbidity and mortality – just over 70 per cent were down to drug deaths, accidents, suicides and assaults.
Drug deaths had the greatest impact on these figures. The 151 deaths related to drugs made up 59 per cent of the total number of estimated deaths and drove a rise of 30 deaths from external causes.
Meanwhile, eight per cent of deaths were caused by circulatory conditions like heart disease and strokes while five per cent were put down to cancer.
Julie Ramsay, the National Records of Scotland’s head of vital events, said: “The estimated number of people dying while experiencing homelessness has risen consistently over the past three years. Improvements to the data sources and the ability to identify whether a person was homeless may partly explain some of this increase since 2017.
“The figures show people experiencing homelessness dying at younger ages than the population as a whole.”
Like other parts of Britain, Scotland used hotels and other emergency accommodation to provide shelter for homeless people to protect them from the virus during the pandemic.
The country has been shifting away from the traditional use of group shelters for some time and has been scaling up efforts to provide accommodation using a Housing First model where accommodation is provided alongside support. In total 545 people had been housed under Scotland’s Housing First Pathfinder project as of August this year.
There is also a rapid rehousing approach to get people who fall into homelessness into settled, mainstream housing as soon as possible and the efforts have had an impact on the number of people on the streets. Just four people are regularly sleeping on the streets of Glasgow, Simon Community Scotland revealed last week.
However, progress on the streets risked being undermined by the country’s struggle to address drug addiction. Drug-related deaths rose to record levels in 2020 with 1,339 people losing their lives despite efforts in recent years to combat the rise.