Shocked politicians say the death of a suspected rough sleeper just yards from the entrance to Parliament must act as a wake-up call for Theresa May to tackle the UK’s growing homelessness crisis.
A Labour MP claimed tragedy had been brought “to the government’s door”, while one housing minister promised the incident on Wednesday morning would spur her on to do more to help people living on the streets.
The man, believed to be a rough sleeper in his 40s, died in an underpass metres from a Commons entrance – despite having been helped in the past by staff working for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The death comes amid record levels of rough sleeping in the UK with local authorities estimating there were around 4,751 rough sleepers on a single night in autumn 2017 – the highest number since comparable records began in 2010.
Latest figures also revealed an 18% increase in the number of rough sleepers in London since 2016, with the figure rising from 964 to 1,137 in autumn 2017.
Corbyn, whose staff are believed to have given the man food in the past, placed flowers at the scene, with a note which read: “This should never have happened”.
He added on Twitter: “I’ve just been told about the death of a rough sleeper right by the entrance to Parliament.
“The powerful can’t carry on walking by on the other side while people don’t have a home to call their own.
“It’s time all MPs took up this moral challenge and properly housed everyone.”
Parliamentary staff arriving at work on Wednesday morning were diverted away from the entrance, which was cordoned off by police officers.
The incident sparked shock and outrage among politcians, who say the government must act now to tackle rising homelessness and rough sleeping.
Neil Coyle, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on homelessness, told HuffPost UK: “We have seen growing problems since 2010, as MPs, journalists and others who pass through Westminster every day will know all too well.
“This government now has on its doorstep a reminder of just how bad things are, and if they continue to ignore this growing problem, incidents like this will become more regular.
“I think members of the public will believe this is utterly unacceptable and it is time for the government to commit to action to ending rough sleeping and homelessness – many of the root causes of which we know already.
“It is not good enough for ministers to keep passing the buck.”
South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck said she believed the man could have been someone she had spoken to in the past.
“I never walk past anyone I see sleeping rough, I always try to help, so it is likely to be someone I have spoken to in the past. It is so upsetting,” she added.
“How anyone in government can stand there and say they are dealing with this issue is beyond me, when I have seen a vast increase in the number of people on Victoria Street alone in the four years since I became an MP.”
Housing minister Heather Wheeler tweeted her shock at the news, and a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said the department was “committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it altogether by 2027”.
“To break the homelessness cycle once and for all, we are providing over £1 billion of funding, supporting rough sleepers with the most complex needs through a new Housing First approach and bringing in the most ambitious legislation in decades through the Homelessness Reduction Act that will mean people get the support they need earlier,” the spokesperson added.
“In addition a new cross-government taskforce supported by a panel of experts will drive forward a new strategy that will make life on the streets a thing of the past.”
A Met Police spokesperson said the death was not being treated as suspicious and a file would be prepared for the coroner.
“Police were called by the London Ambulance Service at 7.17am to reports of an unresponsive male in the underpass of exit three of Westminster underground station,” the force said.
“Officers and the London Ambulance Service attended. The man was pronounced dead at the scene at 7.33am.”
It has not yet been officially confirmed that the man was a rough sleeper, but latest figures show incidences have risen by 73% in the last three years and levels are at their highest on record.
Westminster Council recently asked residents in the borough – one of the wealthiest in the UK – if they would be willing to pay a voluntary tax to help the increasing number of people on the streets.
A Westminster City Council spokesman said: “Westminster City Council outreach services discovered the body this morning and attempted to give CPR until paramedics and police arrived.
“This is a very sad incident and we will work with police as they establish the cause of death.”
Polly Neate, CEO at homelessness charity Shelter, said: “We are very sad to hear of this man’s tragic death. Those sleeping on our streets have to endure the cold, poor health, regular abuse and sometimes violence. Tragically many rough sleepers will die younger as a result. And yet homelessness continues to rise.
“We need to do more to help people off the streets, and we must do more to prevent homelessness in the first place. That means tackling the lack of genuinely affordable homes which is at the root of this crisis.”
Andy Burnham will give a speech tomorrow to address homelessness in Manchester at 10 am at Maxwell Hall, Salford University.