One Town, One Year, 11 Homeless Deaths

As the number of rough sleeper deaths is counted for the first time, Northampton offers a snapshot of the UK's deadly homelessness crisis.
Tents pitched up in a local graveyard(Photos by Natalie Bloomer)

Graham, Richard and Jacek are just three of the names engraved on to stones in a memorial garden outside the Northampton Hope Centre. Since October last year, this day centre for homeless and vulnerable people has seen 11 of its service users die. They range from a 37 year old woman to a 61 year old man. Some were sleeping rough at the time of their deaths, others were in temporary accommodation.

"The causes of deaths are broad," explains Robin Burgess, CEO of the Hope Centre, where the garden was created. "[They range] from drowning in a river or lake whilst washing, to being drunk and wandering in the road or over a railway line, to having suffered an overdose or some other reaction to substances [as a] result of heavy use. It rarely involves dying from the cold, but it is a death caused by homelessness and the homeless lifestyle, and as such is preventable."


Northampton is proof, if it was needed, that homelessness is at a crisis point in the UK. Until now no official body has kept count of the number of people dying while homeless, but new research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in collaboration with charities and groups, and writers such as ourselves, is changing that.

A report published by the project this week revealed that at least 449 homeless people have died in Britain in the last 12 months, a statistic that Polly Neate, the CEO of the charity Shelter, described as a "national disgrace". As a result, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has announced that they will be producing their own estimates on homeless deaths in England and Wales.

"It is utterly unforgivable that so many homeless people are dying unnoticed and unaccounted for," said Neate. "Unstable and expensive private renting, crippling welfare cuts and a severe lack of social housing have created this crisis. At Shelter we see first-hand the suffering it causes, from families trapped in cramped and dingy B&Bs, to those forced to endure the dangers of sleeping rough."

Like most towns and cities across the UK, homelessness has become far more visible in Northampton in recent years. Tents are pitched up in graveyards and on unused bits of land, with sleeping bags a regular sight in the town centre.

Stones engraved with the names of homeless people who have died are lay in a memorial garden in Northampton

At a recent remembrance service for a man who was murdered in June, the names of all the local homeless people who have died in recent years were read out. The list was long but every person on it was remembered and spoken about by someone in the room. People laughed and cried together as they swapped stories about friends and relatives they had lost. As we filtered outside, one of the rough sleepers asked why there weren't protests over the deaths.


"We should be doing something," he said. "I'm going to do something, I know you wouldn't think it but I know about politics, I used to be really into it. I'm going to get us all protesting. This shouldn't be happening."

He and the other homeless people at the service went straight from there to a stall that is set up nearby to provide hot food to those in need. They joined a long queue of people and waited for their dinner. Losing so many people over such a short period time has clearly hit their community hard.

"Even if they didn't know them well, every death that happens reminds them of the risks they face every day and the fear that it could have been them," Burgess says. "For those who work with them it is equally sad, including for those who have previously been homeless and now, having overcome those issues, work in the sector and ruefully think back that again, this could have been them."

Stan Robertson, who delivers breakfasts to rough sleepers in the town, says the deaths have also had an impact on him. "It's hard, these people are my friends, some of them call themselves my second family. I've had grown men crying in my arms but there is no grief counselling for them or anything like that, they just feel like they've got to get on with it."

In the city, homeless people and those who work with them are bracing themselves for another winter. Five of the deaths in the town over the last year happened between Christmas and March when temperatures plummeted.

Local charities and individuals have already started collecting coats and blankets to begin handing out in the coming days and weeks and Robertson says some of the people he speaks to are already finding it hard to stay warm during the night.

"They know the dangers," he says. "And many of them don't think they'll survive another winter."

Samir Jeraj and Natalie Bloomer have partnered with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism on the project Dying Homeless to investigate when, where and how people die homeless in the UK