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DEATHS of homeless people have been branded a “national tragedy” after shock figures revealed today that the number has leapt by almost a quarter in the last five years.
Almost 600 people sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation died last year in England and Wales, according to an estimate from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
This total represents a 24 per cent rise from the 482 who died in 2013, according to the first research of its kind by the ONS.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of homelessness charity Crisis, said: “This is nothing short of a national tragedy, especially when we know that homelessness is not inevitable.
“In one of the world’s wealthiest countries, no-one should be dying because of homelessness. It’s imperative that governments act now to stop this tragedy once and for all.”
Greg Beales, campaign director at housing charity Shelter, branded the homeless deaths figures “a source of national shame.”
He said: “There is nothing inevitable about homelessness or about these tragic deaths, which are a consequence of a housing system which fails too many people.”
The charity blamed a “crippling shortage of social housing” as well as a “threadbare safety net,” calling on the government to change tack to address the problem.
Starkly illustrating the kind of human tragedy that lies behind such statistics is the case of rough-sleeper, Gareth Cooke, 33, who has created a “home” beneath a railway bridge in Yorkshire and is fighting business bosses’ demands that he go elsewhere. They complain that his presence is “unsightly.”
He lives under the stone bridge on a main road into the town of Huddersfield, sleeping on a sofa donated by a well-wisher.
Mr Cooke is one of about 320,000 people who, Shelter says, will have nowhere to live this Christmas. And the number is rising steadily.
Several local businesses, including a restaurant, have complained to Kirklees District Council about Mr Cooke living under the bridge and demanded action to move him.
He has also been visited by the police, who told him to clean up the footpath he lives on.
Mr Cooke, who has been living rough for 18 months after splitting up with his wife, told the Star: “The council community support office said there had been a couple of complaints about me.
“But one of the people complaining even complained about a homeless charity setting up a stall to give homeless people food. That’s all wrong.”
He is surrounded by bric-a-brac and personal possessions, some of them piled up in a supermarket trolley next to his sofa.
Water runs down the stone archway behind his sofa, but nonetheless he has put up pictures, posters and Christmas decorations.
A Christmas stocking hangs on a metal barrier separating his patch of pavement from the busy road into the town centre. He also uses the barrier to dry his clothes. He brews tea on a camping stove.
Mr Cooke said: “I broke up with my wife after 15 years. I had a car wash business. I’d been working very long hours, 14 hours a day. I was tired. My head was not right. We grew apart and split up.
“I had to move out. The house is in both our names, but we have two kids and I wasn’t going to stitch them up. I moved out and became homeless.”
He receives no benefits and does not drink or take drugs.
“I miss appointments because I get depressed, anxiety or I forget,” he said.
Mr Cooke told a local newspaper that he feared he would soon have to leave.
One restaurant owner who complained said: “This is the entrance to Huddersfield town centre and what kind of impression does this give to anyone arriving in the town?”
The council has had a meeting to discuss the issue after receiving the complaints about Mr Cooke’s presence, but it has yet to take action.
A spokesperson said: “Officers from Housing Solutions and their outreach partners are aware of the person sleeping rough under the railway bridge.
“While we do not comment on individual cases, we do engage with those individuals living on the streets to provide advice and assistance.”
Publication of the homelessness death figures came a day after MPs were told that a rough-sleeper, 43-year-old Gyula Remes, had been found dying outside Parliament.
He was the second homeless person known to have died near the Palace of Westminster this year, but the ONS statistics show the scale of such deaths nationwide.
Shadow housing minister Melanie Onn said: “These figures are utterly shameful and reflect a complete failure of Conservative policy on housing, which has seen rough-sleeping skyrocket since 2010.
“We are one of the richest countries in the world and there is no excuse for people dying on our streets.”
Labour has vowed to provide £100 million to ensure that everyone has shelter when it becomes dangerously cold. The party has also pledged to end rough sleeping within five years of taking power.
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