‘If I do die, then it’s God’s will,’ said John Scott Wrench to a group of outreach volunteers as he tucked himself into his sleeping bag.
These would be his last words and the last time he was seen alive – as on the morning of 1 February 2021, John was found dead in the doorway of Marks and Spencer in Manchester City Centre after sleeping rough.
It was bitterly cold the night he passed away. Weather reports had forecast a drop in temperatures to below zero, with heavy snow due to hit parts of Greater Manchester.
For Jim Hutton, the founder of Mad Dog Homeless Project, a grassroots organisation supporting homeless people – and one of the last to see John alive – his passing came as a ‘shock’.
‘I never honestly thought that a young man like him, who was relatively fit, would have died as he was only in his mid twenties,’ he admits, recalling his final encounter with the 25-year-old.
Like so many rough sleepers, Jim explains, John came to end up on the streets after a significant life event, namely the death of his mother. ‘He was brought up in a family where his father suffered poor mental health, and he started hanging around with people his family would have preferred he didn’t’.
Jim first met John during outreach work while delivering hot meals to other rough sleepers, and made a point of checking in on him every day. ‘We all knew John had special needs and as a result we looked out for him,’ he remembers.
‘He was a deep individual who came across as a cheeky chappie sort of person. But he was vulnerable at the same time.’
John, who suffered from epilepsy and was believed to be addicted to a synthetic marijuana known as Spice, is among an increasing number of rough sleepers to have tragically passed away during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the Museum of Homelessness, 967 rough sleeping deaths were recorded across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland last year – 37% higher than the number of fatalities reported in 2019.
The figures, obtained through over 300 Freedom of Information requests to local authorities, revealed that 36% of deaths were related to drugs and alcohol, while 15% died from suicide.
Although less than 3% of deaths were directly related to Covid-19, the sharp rise comes in spite of the Government’s Everyone In scheme, a groundbreaking initiative introduced in March last year to help rough sleepers off the streets during the pandemic and into temporary accommodation.
By January 2021, over 37,000 people had been moved into safe accommodation under the scheme, with data from the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government showing that around 23,000 had been moved into settled accommodation.
However, figures from Network between April 2020 and March 2021, revealed that there was actually a 3% increase in the number of people sleeping on the streets during the pandemic, while a recent report, published by the Public Accounts Committee, warned that despite the initiative’s apparent success, the Government’s rough sleeping strategy is ‘out of date’. It also described a lack of planning on how to end rough sleeping as a ‘failure for which the department cannot blame the pandemic’.
The report also showed that the uptake of the scheme was nearly nine times higher than official estimates of rough sleepers, with charities warning that numbers could rise if there isn’t a commitment to tackling homelessness permanently.
By the time he was discovered by outreach workers during the second lockdown, Craig had been sleeping on the streets for five months.
Living in a property with his girlfriend and her son when the pandemic hit, and suffering with complex needs, he was forced to leave after he began using heroin again.
For Craig, who had never spent a single night on the streets, adjusting to the first few weeks of sleeping rough was difficult. ‘It was very hard being outside, especially as I was used to living in a flat,’ he recalls. ‘It was horrible because you can’t watch your back when you’re asleep.’
As the weeks progressed, life on the streets grew increasingly stressful. Fearful that someone would hurt him if he slept in a doorway, Craig would spend his nights in a disused garage located in an underground car park to avoid confrontation.
With nothing more than a sleeping bag and an old mattress to sleep on, the garage was the closest he came to feeling reassured. ‘That was where I felt safest because you didn’t get people walking by’.
But while security was an issue, it was the prospect of falling ill outside that Craig feared the most. As an epileptic, sleeping rough, particularly at night, presents added dangers. With a combination of continued drug use, and a lack of regular access to anti-epileptic medication, he suffered from five seizures while on the streets.
‘Having an epileptic fit was the main thing I worried about,’ he says. ‘It’s disorientating when I’ve had one because you don’t remember why you’re having it.’
However, Craig is one of the lucky ones. Spotted in April by a local outreach team in Enfield, he was eventually referred to a St Mungo’s-run emergency hotel where he was able to seek treatment to help manage his epilepsy.
With frontline experience and having supported more than 4,000 rough sleepers into hotels and other emergency accommodation during the pandemic, the charity also helped Craig to secure ID as well as assist him with benefits applications.
‘When I first heard from St Mungo’s that was the first time I’d ever been put in a hotel or helped off the street. At first I thought I had to pay for it,’ he recalls. ‘But they told me they would supply it for me and I was over the moon, I couldn’t believe it.’
Now living in secure accommodation, Craig explains that without the help of St Mungo’s his situation would have deteriorated. ‘It wouldn’t have been a good future, it would have been horrible.’
According to Petra Salva OBE, Director of Rough Sleeping, Westminster and Migrant Services at St Mungo’s, Craig’s recovery is an example of what can be achieved with a sense of urgency, government commitment and funding.
‘From my experience Everyone In was a game-changer,’ she explains. ‘Covid-19 has been a horrific experience for all of us; for me, and for those I work with. Having said that, the silver lining is that it really transformed the sense of urgency and it’s really transformed the departments who were working together and how we were able to, at a rapid pace, get hundreds if not thousands of people off the street.’
As part of investment to tackle and end all rough sleeping by 2024, last year the government announced an extra £310million to target areas with high numbers of homeless people and those at risk of homelessness.
However, a joint report from St Mungo’s, Homeless Link and WPI Economics revealed that while homelessness between 2010-18 increased by 165%, by 2018 government funding for local authorities had fallen by half.
It’s not just local authorities who fear the ill-effects of funding shortfalls either. In a survey seen by Metro.co.uk, Homeless Link revealed that over half of the 137 member organisations who responded were concerned about income over the next two years.
‘It’s easy to think of this in broad numbers, but these are real lives, stories of people let down by a system that should protect them,’ explains Rick Henderson, Chief Executive of Homeless Link.
‘It could be a young person who’s recently left the care system, terrified and alone, or someone who lost their job in the pandemic and couldn’t afford their rent.
‘Many of our members are concerned that as we leave the pandemic, government priorities will shift elsewhere and homelessness will rise again. Others are also feeling the effects of short-term funding models, allowing little room for long term planning or solutions.
‘Without long-term investment, there is a real risk that we simply turn around and go back the way we came.’
Even recent emergency funding hasn’t been able to compensate for the cuts to welfare, drug and housing services made before the pandemic, which has drastically impacted the ability of local authorities to commission services to assist those who are homeless.
Published less than a month ago, a report from the Kerslake Commission on Homelessness and Rough Sleeping has recommended that the government will need to spend £335.5million for the next three years if it is to meet its commitment to end all rough sleeping by 2024.
For Jasmine Basran, Head of Policy at Crisis, the effects of underfunding on local authorities is just the tip of the iceberg.
‘The pandemic has revealed that homelessness is a public health issue, we’ve always known there is a link between health and homelessness,’ she explains.
‘Rough sleeping is incredibly dangerous and the coronavirus crisis has added an additional layer of danger to that situation – so people sleeping rough are also far more likely to have health conditions which makes them vulnerable to Covid.’
Meanwhile, according to the most recent statistics from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network, while there was a 19% decrease in the number of people seen rough sleeping between July and September last year, data also shows that 1,901 of rough sleepers were doing so for the first time.
Petra explains that while Everyone In helped to support a high proportion into safe accommodation, the scheme also exposed cracks in the already existing initiatives.
‘With years of funding cuts to social care and support, it’s no wonder that we’ve got these issues where people just don’t have the level of supported housing,’ she says. ‘We need long-term secure funding to design services so that we can get good staff and develop a programme.
‘The challenge is that investing in prevention is not going to necessarily result in an impact during this Parliament. While the results may not be seen immediately, that is what needs to happen. And it needs to happen urgently.’
While Craig survived life on the streets during the pandemic, receiving specialist support to treat his complex needs, John felt unable to access the tailored support he so desperately required before his death.
‘He did tell us who was out and about talking to him and anything he felt important for us to know,’ Jim recalls. ‘He never really trusted the authorities as he said they constantly let him down.
‘I can say that the pandemic did affect John’s ability to get the support from the statutory services he was entitled to,’ he adds.
Jim goes on to explains that because of his anxiety, John did not like to mix with other groups of people and would have found it difficult to live with others in government-run hotels.
‘He never took more than his immediate need, which we have found in many people who we’ve encountered like John, who have learning disabilities, mental health problems and the like,’ he says.
‘John was without a doubt failed by those who should have tried hard to accommodate his special needs. Had he been given a worker who could have made one of a few simple things possible, then he would be alive today.’
Responding to the news of John’s death, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said that he had been offered support, with council officers working with him on a ‘regular basis’, but ‘did not feel able to accept.’
In a statement, the Mayor said: ‘The sad and untimely death of John Wrench, and the circumstances surrounding it, are so sad and distressing.
‘In this day and age, no one should be forced to sleep on the streets nor ever be forced to spend their final hours there.’
Tragically, John’s story is not unique. A report from the Local Government Association found that despite the recent ‘enhanced levels of co-operation between services’, it was often difficult for rough sleepers to access appropriate health services – reflecting what is described as a lack of ‘specialist primary care services working in homelessness’.
Just this week, it was announced that two revamped London buses would patrol the capital this winter to offer mobile care centres to people living on the streets.
However, Lucy Moritz, Chief Executive of the homeless charity Glass Door, says that it’s the deaths of rough sleepers that reinforce the urgent need for a new approach to resolve the issue as the UK moves out of the pandemic.
‘Everyone In moved tens of thousands of people off the streets, but it hasn’t solved any of the underlying problems that are the causes of homelessness,’ she says. ‘It’s an absolute sticking plaster and what really needs to be done is to tackle the root causes to stop rough sleeping in the first place.
‘Unfortunately, over the last 20-plus years, the problem has gotten worse,’ adds Lucy. ‘If the government is going to meet their target of eliminating rough sleeping by 2024 then the resources need to be there regardless of a pandemic.’
10 October 2021 marks World Homeless Day. For more information click here.
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