'We have let homeless down’ after report reveals findings into Calderdale men’s deaths

Angry councillors say the help Calderdale’s homeless people receive must improve, after hearing the stories behind the deaths of five vulnerable men.

By John Greenwood - Local Democracy Reporter
Thursday, 18th March 2021, 9:59 am
Updated Thursday, 18th March 2021, 11:21 am
Generic homeless picture
Generic homeless picture

Responses from services meant they were often left with suggestions as to where they might go for help rather than proactive referrals as practical steps, members of Calderdale Council’s Adults, Health and Social Care Scrutiny Board heard.

Councillors believed the men had been let down and in the future services had to work more closely together to offer practical support and try and ensure tragedies like this did not happen again.

They heard that after the deaths of the five men in a four month period in late 2018 and early 2019, four more homeless men had also died.

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Coun Megan Swift (Lab, Town) said what councillors heard was distressing.

“I am sat here feeling absolutely angry or wanting to cry.

“We should have heard about this.

“Whatever has to be done has to be done because we have all let these men down – the council because we didn’t know, the health authority, the hospital, everybody,” she said.

Calderdale Safeguarding Adults Board presented the findings of a review following the five men’s deaths before the review’s publication.

The safeguarding board had been asked to undertake this because the council was concerned that no system of alert was in place to monitor the deaths of people living amongst the street-based population, and that no one agency appeared aware of all the deaths, or with whom to share that information.

Safeguarding Partnerships manager Julia Caldwell said the review’s aim is the prevention or reduction of neglect and abuse of adults in this vulnerable situation, learning from what has happened in the past and how the situation can improve.

Niamh Cullen, public health manager, said the men – Jason, Zeb, Pat, Lewy and Peter (not their real names) had passed away at the ages of 36, 51, 46, 42 and 40, circumstances including septicemia and a suspected drug overdose.

A common theme was their vulnerability, usually taking in homelessness or unstable housing, drugs and alcohol, and there was a culture of agencies dealing with them of not making referrals anymore, councillors heard.

Ms Cullen had been shocked to learn that four of the men had suffered traumatic brain injuries by being hit, but the incidents were never reported to the police.

“They tend to be known to everyone but served by no-one as they are perceived to be ‘hard to reach’ or ‘not my responsibility’,” she said.

Coun Ashley Evans (Lib Dem, Warley) was concerned this report had been two years in the making and change needed to happen much quicker than that, and he was also worried there had been no referrals, instead relying on “signposting” help to homeless people.

Ms Cullen said some practical changes were being made, with a new eight bed high quality unit in Halifax set to open on May 3.

The written report councillors also received also referenced the winter COVID shelter that had been commissioned by the council to provide a safe place during the pandemic.

Since the men’s deaths and the preparation of the report, she said, “there has been a huge cultural shift behind the scenes and the hope is by the time the report is published the job will be 30 per cent done.”

Coun Mike Barnes (Lab, Skircoat) said the report was “damning and distressing” and criticised NHS Calderdale Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) for not having a representative attend the meeting.

Councillors should be involved at the start not the end of the process, he said, and his proposal, supported by Board Chair Coun Howard Blagbrough (Con, Brighouse) for better engagement was approved by the board.

Coun Blagbrough is also formally requesting the CCG attend a meeting to discuss the issue.

Coun Steven Leigh (Con, Ryburn) sought more information about practicalities.

“If someone tonight is asleep on the streets of Halifax, what needs to happen to save a life?” he said.

Ms Cullen said street outreach workers and the Gathering Place shelter were now operating and contacting them would be the first steps.

Inspector Neil Taylor of West Yorkshire Police and Helen Hunter of Healthwatch Calderdale both agreed there had to be change involving all agencies.

“We all have to be focused on this, it is not acceptable that we might think this happens and ignore it,” said Ms Hunter.

Safeguarding Adults Board independent chair Marianne Huison said no one agency could have solved the problems and these had to come together more closely in the future to do so.

“When people die in their early 40s that is really sad and a big inequality in our society that we need to take seriously,” she said.

She accepted councillors’ frustrations about slowness but tangible changes were happening.

The council’s Assistant Director for adult social care operations, Sean Cook, said: “We need an easier, more accessible system we can refer to, and accountability of the agencies.

“Work is under way to make sure that happens.”

The CCG has been asked for comment.