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UK’s extreme weather support for rough sleepers labelled ‘inadequate’

Exclusive: A new report has warned homelessness services in the UK are not prepared for the climate crisis

Ruby Lott-Lavigna
29 March 2023, 6.00am

A new report says the UK homelessness system is not ready for the impact of climate change


Leon Neal/Getty Images

The UK's extreme weather support for rough sleepers is “inadequate” and homelessness services are not prepared for the climate crisis, a new report has warned.

Grassroots group the Museum of Homelessness (MoH) carried out a six-month investigation into the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (Swep) following the record-breaking heatwave last summer. Swep is provided by councils during extreme weather to stop people dying on the streets, and includes providing shelter to people experiencing homelessness when temperatures hit freezing.

The report named more than 30 local authorities in England and Wales that MoH said are not doing enough – either because they have activated Swep five times or less in the last two years or because they couldn't say what their protocols were for it. They include Bristol, Sheffield and London councils Bexley and Hillingdon.

There is no legal requirement for councils or local authorities to activate Swep, but, according to charity Homeless Link, “it is widely accepted that there is a humanitarian obligation to provide Swep and prevent death.”

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For the report, MoH contacted 91 local authorities around the UK to see what support is offered to people on the street during extreme heat, rain or cold. It asked how many times they had activated Swep between 1 August 2020 and 31 July 2022, as well as what provisions were provided and how many people were helped.

One in four councils contacted by MoH said they did not activate Swep or were unable to provide a Swep protocol, dates or information about the offer or the number of people assisted. Some London councils referred MoH to the Greater London Authority (GLA), which coordinates the activation of Swep, but does not manage the service.

The report found that even when Swep is activated, support can be often limited.

“The information we received from councils demonstrated a high level of 'ad-hoc' initiation of Swep and Swep being offered for short bursts,” the report states. “Only around half of councils offered further support, such as follow-on beds. The experiences of people who are homeless told us that the Swep offers are not very accessible or don't feel safe. People told us that they wouldn't want to go inside just for one or two nights, as they might lose a good sleep site and have to start all over again.

“Another example given by Streets Kitchen volunteers was about bedding, pods or tents. To access Swep meant either leaving those outside or giving up belongings, and this was not an option for many people.”

Only around half of councils said they offered further support, such as follow-on beds, when people came in for Swep. One worker MoH spoke to described a practice of using a fire alarm to get everyone out of their rooms to inform them Swep had ended.

The report also highlighted slow responses to referrals of people on the street while Swep is active. The South Norwood Community Kitchen in south London told MoH: “This winter, a 70-year-old vulnerable man was left to sleep outside for six nights and a couple new to the streets forced to squat a garage for three nights in the snow. We did everything we could to get them inside during that time, to no avail.”

Other outreach workers said they were told there are “exceptions and limitations” to Swep for a person seeking asylum, while in London the report found only people deemed to be “genuinely rough sleeping” are eligible.

The Museum of Homelessness, a community-focused initiative founded in 2015, concluded provision “is not meeting people’s needs,” “is inconsistently applied and is inadequate for many reasons”.

“We’ve also found evidence that UK homelessness systems are not ready for the likely increase in extreme weather events,” the report added.

Last year, record-breaking temperatures hit much of the UK. Twice in July temperatures in London reached over 40C, causing the Met Office to issue an extreme heat warning. Despite this, many councils could not say what their protocol was for helping people on the streets.

Global warming is only expected to increase the likelihood of dangerous weather. The Met Office predicts that due to the effects of climate change, the UK will experience “more frequent and intense weather extremes”.

Matt Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness, told openDemocracy: “We hope our findings make it clear, our systems are not ready for climate change and fall well short of what is needed to give people safety and security when there is extreme weather.

“Councils need to fundamentally rethink what they are doing and up their game in order to protect lives.”

The report included recommendations to improve the system, such as making Swep a statutory duty, providing support for longer than one or two nights and abolishing eligibility criteria. It also called for local climate taskforces to be created, and for Swep to be included in all climate mitigation plans by central and local government.

Bristol, Sheffield, Bexley and Hillingdon were all contacted for comment.

Bexley responded, saying it had “triggered Swep on all the occasions when were asked to do so,” by the GLA.

Sheffield Council told openDemocracy the need for Swep was reduced during the period specified because it was already running a scheme to accommodate people sleeping rough.

“Between 1 August 2020 and 31 July 2022 the council was running a ‘Rough Sleeper Plan’ that aimed to accommodate all people who sleep rough regardless of temperatures and reduced the need to activate Swep.”

Update 30/03/2023: A comment from Sheffield Council was added to the piece.

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