Oxford City Council will activate its Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) this weekend, taking the total number of nights SWEP has operated this winter to 31.
The protocol, activated on Friday night to last until Monday morning, means the City Council and local charities will provide extra shelter for rough sleepers around the city. It is activated when the Met Office forecasts sub-zero overnight temperatures for three or more consecutive nights.
SWEP is operated with the Council’s local partners Homeless Oxfordshire and St. Mungo’s, which runs the Oxford Street Population Outreach Team (Oxford SPOT). Other partners include Simon House, The Porch, and a number of Oxford churches.
On the nights that SWEP has been activated so far this winter, 703 bed spaces have been occupied.
Oxford City Council Board Member for Housing, Cllr Mark Rowley, said: “The unusually harsh conditions in the last month mean that by Monday morning SWEP beds will have been available for 31 nights this winter.
“Activating SWEP means that staff and volunteers in Oxford’s homelessness services step up from their regular duties to deal with emergency conditions, and it is a tribute to their experience and professionalism that SWEP has risen to the extraordinary challenges it has faced this winter.
“If you are concerned about a rough sleeper, you can contact Oxford SPOT on 01865 304611 to make a referral, or report them on the national StreetLink website or app. The Oxford SPOT line is not an emergency line for reporting rough sleepers at night, as the Oxford SPOT team will be helping to run SWEP and not taking phone calls.
“If you think there is immediate danger to the health of a rough sleeper, please call 999 instead.”
Rough sleepers can access beds at O’Hanlon House between 9pm and 9.30pm every night that SWEP is activated. Members of the Oxford SPOT team will be out on the streets to inform homeless people that the protocol is in operation this weekend.
O’Hanlon House provides a “secure environment” for “known rough sleepers with chaotic behaviours and those presenting for the first time whose needs are unknown.”
Known rough sleepers who present a lower risk to themselves or other are often allocated shelter in the churches’ Oxford Winter Night Shelter (OWNS).
Specialist SWEP provision is also available for single homeless women.
Last term, Oxford SU’s homeless campaign ‘On Your Doorstep’ petitioned the City Council to operate SWEP on every night of sub-zero temperatures, rather than when three consecutive nights of freezing weather are forecast. This would be in line with homeless policy in London.
Chair of ‘On Your Doorstep’, Alex Kumar, told Cherwell: “It is brilliant to see eligibility rules suspended and emergency shelter opened to rough sleepers. Shelter on freezing nights is a basic human need.
“One local authority on its own cannot solve the national homelessness crisis, but it can do a lot to to ease human suffering, and I encourage Oxford to be bold, like London, like Liverpool.
“I hope the City Council continues to go forward from here towards activating SWEP and opening the shelters to all rough sleepers on every freezing night, knowing that they have support from their own local party in doing so.”
Rough sleepers have reportedly been reluctant on occasion to access the shelters, citing concerns about drug use and the lack of provision for dogs.
Spaces for up to four dogs are available in Homeless Oxfordshire’s O’Hanlon House, though these are all currently taken. Oxford SPOT offers free kennel spaces to all rough sleepers with dogs during SWEP periods.
A further decision about whether to continue operating SWEP will be made on Monday.
On the nights that SWEP has been activated so far this winter, 121 individuals have accessed emergency beds, with an average of 24 rough sleepers each night during SWEP periods. The highest number in SWEP beds on any one night was 38 people.
A November 2017 count of the homeless population in Oxford put the total number of rough sleepers at 61, the highest recorded figure in the city’s history.