Oxford City Council have reactivated their Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) this week to help the homeless find overnight shelter, following forecasts of sub-zero overnight temperatures.
The Council and local homeless charities found extra accommodation space for rough sleepers on Wednesday and Thursday nights.
When SWEP is in action, additional beds are made available for anyone who would otherwise be sleeping rough, even if they would not “usually be eligible for the city’s adult homeless pathway.”
Under guidance from Homeless Link, the Council operates SWEP on the first night of a period when the Met Office forecasts sub-zero temperatures for three or more consecutive nights.
Bob Price, Leader of the Council, told Cherwell: “It is not a statutory requirement to provide shelter for rough sleepers during the winter, but the Council believes it has a humanitarian obligation to do what it can to prevent deaths on the streets caused by adverse weather.
“There is no single definition of severe weather – any conditions that increase the risk of harm to people sleeping rough can be classed as severe.
“Many people sleeping rough will already have health issues caused or made worse by homelessness.”
The Council has alerted local providers The Porch, A2Dominion alongside its key charity partners St Mungo’s and Homeless Oxfordshire that the protocol has been activated.
Charlotte Blake, Head of Services at Homeless Oxfordshire told Cherwell: “Hypothermia is a real risk to those with no home and having to sleeping outside in winter.
“The emergency accommodation and support we provide enables people to have a safe and secure place to sleep indoors, warmth, food, a shower and also a link into support services.
“The City Council and the Voluntary Sector agencies working with homeless people and rough sleepers share the interest of this community and have a well established relationship.
“There is a good collaboration of work and understanding of the issues faced by rough sleepers and single homeless people…”
As part of the emergency plans, the Oxford Street Population Outreach Team (Oxford SPOT), based at Homeless Oxfordshire’s O’Hanlon House, notified those on the street that extra shelter had been opened.
Alex Kumar, Chair of the Oxford University SU’s ‘On Your Doorstep’ homelessness campaign, said that this reactivation of SWEP over “these exceptionally cold nights” was a “great thing.”
He also told Cherwell: “With homelessness now at the level of crisis on the streets of Oxford, SWEP is the floor – not the ceiling – of what needs to happen. Let us imagine if the shelters were opened to all every time temperatures dropped below zero for just a single night.
“How many more lives might be saved?
“Or imagine if SWEP were extended indefinitely – if all our city’s rough sleepers who will be given temporary shelters these few days were allowed to stay there for as long as they need with both the protection from danger and the opportunity for improvement that you really struggle to find when you’re sleeping rough.
“Let us imagine these things – and ask, ‘why not?’”
The SWEP plan has been activated three times in December, the last being on Christmas Eve.
Oxford recently lost one homeless shelter – Lucy Faithfull House – due to cuts. A new property in Rose Hill was acquired by the Council last week to serve as shelter in the future.