Deaths of homeless people sleeping in bins prompt calls for action

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Rough sleepers are sheltering in bins all year round, with surging homelessness in the UK blamed for a rising number of deaths by crushing and near-misses while containers are being emptied, a waste industry report has found.

Homelessness charities and waste industry officials are calling for action to prevent “terrible fatalities”, after incidents in which vulnerable people sleeping in waste containers have died after being accidentally tipped into bin lorries.

At least seven people are known to have been killed in the last five years, according to the Health and Safety executive, and waste industry bosses have warned rising destitution in the UK is putting more lives at risk.

A report by the waste company Biffa, the Open University and the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, seen by the Guardian, found the problem of rough sleepers sheltering in bins had surged in the last five years. Although most incidents take place in the winter, the report said people were being discovered inside waste containers by bin collectors at all times of the year.

Rough sleepers are typically discovered inside closed containers during cold weather in secluded urban areas, according to the survey of 57 waste disposal companies and councils. But people are increasingly being discovered sheltering in bins in towns and villages as the homelessness crisis worsens.

Over a third of organisations reported encountering issues with people sheltering in bins in the last year.

From April to December 2019, Biffa employees recorded 109 “near-misses” or encounters with people either sleeping in or near its bins, although the figures rely on internal reporting and the true extent of the issue is unknown. Swindon, Sheffield, Newton Abbot, central London, Cardiff and South Shields are all understood to be hotspots for such incidents.

A device in the cab of Biffa lorry that allows the driver to issue an alert if they find anyone sleeping in or near a bin

The waste disposal company provided a video to the Guardian recorded this month of workers discovering a man sheltering in a bin in Norwich in the early hours of the morning.

In the report, Petra Salva, the head of rough sleeping at the homelessness charity St Mungo’s, said: “Latest statistics show that 726 homeless people died while street homeless or in emergency accommodation in England and Wales in 2018. As this report notes, regrettably, homelessness and rough sleeping has risen drastically over the last decade. People dying while homeless is an absolute tragedy.

“Terrible fatalities occur when people seek refuge in bins. We think it’s unacceptable that people are forced to sleep rough in the first place but almost unthinkable that people are so desperate that they will seek refuge in bin containers. And some of the most vulnerable people in our society find themselves in this situation, facing not just homelessness but also mental and physical health issues, drug or alcohol problems, maybe long histories of neglect and abuse.”

The government has acknowledged it is “unacceptable” for anyone to be forced to take shelter in waste disposal containers and has committed to ending rough sleeping by the end of this parliament.

In 2014, Biffa issued safety guidance to bin lorry drivers on how to prevent homeless people from being crushed in compaction units after it became an unexpected consequence of a rise in rough sleeping.

Michael Topham, Biffa’s chief executive, said the issue of people sheltering in bins was as pressing as it had been five years ago and said his company was committed to improving industry practices to avoid “tragic” incidents. Veolia, another waste disposal company, has also reported increased problems with people sheltering in bins.

Last year, an inquest heard a 47-year-old man died after suffering crushing injuries to his legs weeks when he was tipped into a bin lorry in Rochester, Kent.

Trevor Nicoll, the president of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, said: “The issue of people seeking shelter in bins continues to be a challenge for the resources and waste management sector and the risk is likely to grow as the number of homeless people sleeping rough rises.

“Recent figures from the Greater London Authority, for example, show that the number of new rough sleepers in London has increased by 50% in one year and many of these vulnerable members of society may seek shelter in a waste container. At the same time, there have also been some tragic accidents when individuals have taken refuge in waste containers after a night out.”

About one in 10 cases of a person found sheltering in a bin involves a person that had been on a night out, according to the report, which can sometimes have tragic consequences. The RAF gunner Corrie McKeague is believed to have climbed into a bin that was then taken away by a lorry before his disappearance in September 2016.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “It is completely unacceptable that anyone should have to face sleeping in these conditions in modern Britain. This does not reflect the society we should be and this is why we have committed to ending rough sleeping by the end of this parliament.

“We have also committed a record £1.2bn into funding services for rough sleepers and those at risk of becoming homeless, and have introduced the Homelessness Reduction Act which means councils [can] take action to prevent homelessness before it happens.”

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