Why we’re counting the deaths of homeless people

Police in the cordoned off area on the Marriott's Way off Barker Street where Kayla Terry's body was

Police in the cordoned off area on the Marriott's Way off Barker Street where Kayla Terry's body was found. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

Maeve McClenaghan, from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, on why she has spent the last eight months counting the deaths of homeless people.

Earlier this week the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, along with partners all across the country, revealed that at least 449 people had died homeless in the last year, including at least nine in Norfolk and Waveney.

It was a shocking figure made all the more shocking for that fact that, until then, no-one had been counting these deaths.

Our project, Dying Homeless, started back in February after a series of homeless deaths made headlines when icy storms hit the UK.

That got me thinking… I knew that there had been a huge increase in homelessness, with the number of rough sleepers in England and Wales rising by 169pc since 2010, but I wondered how often people were dying homeless?

What I thought was a simple question turned into weeks of calls and enquiries to coroners' offices and councils, hospitals or police... it turned out no-one kept a record of these deaths.

So the Bureau set out to do so. For nine months I attended funerals, interviewed family members, collected coroners' reports, spoke to doctors, shadowed homeless outreach teams, contacted soup kitchens and hostels and compiled scores of Freedom of Information requests.

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But it wasn't me alone, far from it.

We knew that many of these deaths never made it onto the national radar, but many were reported at a local level. Indeed, around a quarter of all the 449 deaths we logged came from local news reports, proving once again what a valuable role local papers have to play. Scouring through those reports allowed us to compile many of the names and stories in our database.

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But it didn't stop there. We have an amazing network of journalists and collaborators all across the UK, (called the Bureau Local network), who all got stuck in exploring and reporting on deaths in their area. In the end we got more than 100 submissions through our online form, which we worked to cross-check and verify.

After months of work, filling in name after name in our database, we prepared to release our UK wide figure our collaborative partners got ready to break the story for their regions. That included the Eastern Daily Press and Evening News, where Tom Bristow found at least nine people had died in Norfolk and Waveney in the last year.

Those tragic deaths included a father who froze to death metres from the home he had been evicted from and a 23 year-old who is believed to have died from suicide.

The findings horrified the nation and prompted Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government James Brokenshire to call the scale of the issue 'utterly shocking'.

But there was positive news too: inspired by the Dying Homeless project the Office for National Statistics has been looking into how it could produce its own estimates on homeless deaths.

Researchers there used the project's database to construct a methodology and will release its first figures later this year. This is a seismic step forward in the way we record and address this complex issue, and it would never have happened without the tireless work of our amazing local journalist network.

Together we worked to reveal a shocking story but, even more importantly, we told the stories of 449 people whose premature and tragic deaths should shame us all.

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