On Tuesday, 12 January, the Oxford City Council re-activated its severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP), providing emergency beds for people experiencing rough sleeping.

The SWEP is activated every night when the Met Office forecasts temperatures to fall below zero overnight. It could also be activated in other severe weather conditions such as snow. It was open for 19 consecutive nights this winter, from 23 December to the morning of 11 January. This is the longest continuous duration which the SWEP has remained open. The SWEP was then opened once again on 12 January.

The SWEP has been open for extended periods on a few occasions in the past. In March and April 2013, the SWEP was open for 12 consecutive nights. This occurred again in February to March 2018, when the British Isles experienced the Beast from the East cold wave.

On average, 10 people per night have accessed SWEP accommodation so far this winter, according to data released by the Oxford City Council. The number peaked at 17 people on both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

In view of the ongoing pandemic, rough sleepers in SWEP accommodation are now offered their own room for the night, while in previous years they would sleep in shared spaces. The Oxford City Council has secured 25 rooms across 3 venues, and there are contingency plans in place to provide more rooms if the need arises. This has been achieved through collaborations with St Mungo’s, Aspire, and Homeless Oxfordshire, organisations that assist homeless people in Oxfordshire.

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“Cold weather can kill. It is vital that everyone who is on the streets, or who is at risk of rough sleeping, can access self-contained accommodation as soon as possible, with adequate support where it is needed. We will continue to work with Oxford City Council to save lives this winter,” said Matt Rudd, regional manager of St Mungo’s in Oxford, in a news release on the Oxford City Council website.

“It has been a privilege to provide relief, dignity and a safe warm space to people experiencing rough sleeping. We’ve also managed to support one rough sleeper into stable accommodation, and former rough sleepers in our supported accommodation are providing peer support to people accessing the SWEP service to ensure they are accessing substance misuse recovery groups in the evenings,” added Paul Roberts, CEO of Aspire.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Council has housed 303 homeless people. Of these, 134 have been provided more permanent housing, including some who had been sleeping rough on a long-term basis. The Oxfordshire County Council has also recently provided additional funding to help rough sleepers in Oxford access more support for problems with drug and alcohol use. Oxford City will receive £584,000 initially, with additional funding available in subsequent years, to address intensive substance misuse, according to a press release from the Oxfordshire County Council.

Photo: Garry Knight, via Wikimedia Commons.