How many people are dying on our streets?

Earlier this year, the Guardian Australia reported on 12 months spent investigating the deaths of homeless Australians. The findings are greatly concerning. The study notes that the deaths of Australia’s rough sleepers are largely invisible.  Despite numerous requests by the homelessness sector, no government counts the number or understands the circumstances in which these deaths occur.

By contrast, England, Scotland, Wales and parts of Canada annually track the number and cause of death, the essential information needed to understand the scale and nature of the problem.

In WA, the Home2Health team led by Professor Lisa Woods, estimate that 360 rough sleepers died in Perth between 2020 and 2022. The median age of death was 50 years, a life expectancy gap of more than three decades compared to the general population.

The Guardian Australia’s research found that coronial records of 627 deaths had an average age of 44.5 years. For men, the average age was 45.2 and for women, the average age was 40.1. They note that ‘deaths of despair – suicide and overdose- are major drivers accounting for 20% and 30%  of deaths respectively.’

Indigenous Australians are overrepresented in the homeless population and in homeless deaths, accounting for 21.5% of homeless deaths (compared to 3.2% of the population).

Research tells us that people sleeping rough often have complex needs, and are likely to have a number of health issues that are impossible to treat or manage while sleeping rough.

There are no national systems in place to measure data regarding homeless deaths. This petition is calling on the Australian Government to implement a national homelessness deaths and life expectancy gap reporting framework.
Sign the petition – A3HN | Australian Health, Housing & Homelessness Network

Systemic Failures:

The investigation revealed deep systemic failings. The Guardian reports that:

  • Rough sleepers who present as suicidal to hospitals are being turned away or discharged back into homelessness due to a lack of beds, emergency housing and mental healthcare availability. In two cases identified by the Guardian, homeless Indigenous men linked their hospital presentation directly to their homelessness. One told staff: “It is hard to find a reason to live when you have nowhere to live.” They were discharged and found dead a short time later.

  • Rough sleepers are dying needlessly after encounters with police and the justice system on trivial matters, which lead to use of force or deaths in custody. In at least four cases seen by the Guardian, deaths occurred after arrests for minor public order offences, such as drinking in public and public urination.

  • Frontline workers say the chronic underfunding of specialised homelessness health services means easily treatable injuries and illnesses are being missed in early stages. This is compounding the significant toll homelessness causes on physical and mental health.

  • Homeless Australians are being subjected to brutal, sometimes fatal violence while sleeping rough, and being found in parks, squats and on the street shot, stabbed or bashed.

  • In Western Australia, Indigenous families say the state government is evicting public housing residents even when it knows this will lead to homelessness. Guardian Australia is aware of at least two families whose loved ones died by suicide shortly after losing housing and becoming homeless. The state’s department of communities said terminations are sought only as a “last resort” and that they provide support to tenants facing eviction.

Homelessness is a health issue. Homelessness exacerbates existing health problems, creates new health problems and poor health can be a cause of homelessness.

Housing First is the evidence-based solution to solving homelessness for people with complex needs. Safe, affordable, permanent housing, without any pre-conditions, accompanied by wrap around supports to address all physical and mental health needs and other social needs, will end most people’s homelessness and risk of an early death.

The number of people dying on our streets is unclear. To fully  solve this issue, governments must commit to measuring the scale and circumstances of the deaths of people experiencing chronic homelessness.

Access the National Coronial Research Report here.

Read the Out in the Cold articles in the Guardian here.

Listen to the Podcast

What do we know about homelessness deaths in Australia – and why is nobody tracking them?

‘People are dying waiting for a house’: how Australia’s healthcare system leaves rough sleepers with nowhere to turn.

Homeless Australians are dying at age 44 on average in hidden crisis