Dying Homeless project – a year long, collaborative investigation – revealed for the first time, the scale of homeless deaths across the UK.
After discovering that no official body held data on how and when people were dying homeless we started counting, aware that this deficit of information meant no-one knew how wide-scale this issue was or whether lessons could be learnt to prevent deaths in the future.
We revealed that at least 800 people died (October 2017 – April 2019). We logged the names and stories of hundreds of people who had lost their lives.
The findings set the news agenda, provoked debates in parliament, and prompted Ministers to promise to do more to address the issue. The Secretary of State for Housing called our findings “utterly shocking” and promised case reviews into deaths.
Following our revelations about the lack of reviews into homeless deaths, several councils, including Brighton & Hove and Leeds have said they will undertake their own reviews into deaths in their area. The government’s Rough Sleeper Strategy recommended, for the first time, that deaths be reviewed.
We started our series using #makethemcount: a call for an official body to log these deaths. In December, prompted by our work, the Office for National Statistics produced the first ever official data on homeless deaths. This came after we shared our data with the ONS to help them develop their methodology. The Scottish National Records Office has now followed suit and will soon publish its first ever data on homeless deaths. The Northern Irish equivalent has said it is exploring producing its own data now too.
We presented the findings to the APPG on Homelessness and the figures have been cited in parliament several times. Prompted by our network of reporters, at least 17 MPs and councillors have spoken out on the issue.
The work was also received positively by those working with and for homeless people. The Big Issue said: “To its huge credit, the Bureau’s research extensively looked into the stories of every one of those deaths… Putting faces and stories to numbers humanised the figure”.
Across the country, members of the public came together to remember those that passed away. There were protests about homeless deaths in Belfast, Birmingham, London and Manchester, memorial services in Brighton, Oxford, Luton and London, and physical markers erected in Long Eaton and Northampton
For a year, we attended funerals and inquests, interviewed family members, collected coroner’s reports, shadowed homeless outreach teams and compiled Freedom of Information requests – all in an attempt to get to the true picture.
We worked out a careful methodology, after consulting various expert groups, and then created a first-of-its-kind database where we logged the details of each death.
This database was used to build a powerful visualisation, which allowed readers to read more about each person, as well as understanding the scale of the tragedy.
Using scraping, deep-web searches and FOI we were then able to reveal that, of 83 of the recent deaths in our database, not a single official review had been launched to explore the circumstances of the deaths, despite experts arguing that a review would be best practice
All our findings were opened up to those in our Bureau Local network, a group of local journalists across the country. More than 100 local news stories and 80 national stories were produced.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Each death had to be fact-checked and verified, which was no easy task. We were also very aware of the need to report sensitively and respectfully. Indeed, it took many months to gain trust within the homelessness sector, but by the end of the project we had key sources across the country who were willing and able to share information as they got it.
As we drew our project to a close in April 2019, we were aware that we did not want the work to simply stop overnight. The Office for National Statistics was now producing official data but these deaths were about more than numbers, they were people. So we worked with the Museum of Homelessness and handed over the visualisation and commemorative project to them, helping them develop their methodology and website so that they could continue to tell the stories of those that pass away while homeless.
What can others learn from this project?
This project was the perfect example of journalists not being thwarted by the fact there was no official data to go on. Rather than give up when we found out no-one was counting homeless deaths, we were spurred on address this evidentiary void. By working collaboratively with a network of journalists and bloggers across the country, we were able to crowd-source much of the information.
And, by working with official statisticians, and opening up our database to them, we were able to achieve real impact.