Without a place to shelter from the elements, the consequences could be lethal. Meanwhile many places of shelter that were used to protect people on the streets in times of cold weather are now not Covid-safe.
How extreme weather is dealt with in the UK needs a wholesale “shift in mindset”, according to Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis.
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“It is really interesting that when there’s a natural disaster, like a flood, due to extreme weather, and people are made homeless – those people don’t stay homeless, they’re found somewhere else to live,” he said.
“Yet when there is an existing rough sleeping population which is at risk of severe weather all the time we don’t treat those people in the same way and that’s completely unacceptable.
“I think if we adopt the mindset that anyone who is rough sleeping isn’t in an acceptable situation, we will deal with it as swiftly as we do when there’s severe weather affecting people in their own homes.
“It’s a shift in mindset as needed. Not a not a series of small measures that just manage the most extreme element of it.”
The risk of hypothermia from cold snaps – such as the infamous ‘Beast from the East’ snowstorms in 2018 – is something that is mitigated in the UK. For example, councils invoke the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) to prevent deaths on the streets when temperatures reach sub-zero.
However, it is currently up to local authorities whether they follow SWEP and there is no overriding legislation forcing councils to act.
Homeless Link, the national membership charity for organisations working in homelessness, updated SWEP guidance in late October 2021 to help shelters plan for the winter. The suggested actions said single rooms are now the “preferred option” in the wake of Covid-19 with a call for “creative solutions” from councils to find spaces.
Downie insisted £3.7m of government funding to transform shelters has not proved enough and added: “We are worried about the lack of safety from the weather, but also lack of safety from the virus too.”
There is guidance around heatwaves, too, coming into force at temperatures over 25 degrees Celsius, which leave rough sleepers at risk of sunstroke, dehydration and skin cancer if they cannot get out of the sun or get access to water or sunscreen.
This is a particular risk in cities, according to Dr Shakoor Hajat, an associate professor and programme director at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Dr Hajat worked on a study published by The Lancet earlier this year on homelessness and climate change. The academic previously published work showing the increased risk of death among people living with mental health problems and substance misuse during hot weather.
Dr Hajat told The Big Issue the “heat island effect” – urban areas that are warmer due to the impact of buildings, roads and other human interventions – means city centres are likely to be warmer than the rural areas, increasing the risk.
The wet-bulb temperature is also a risk. This occurs when heat and humidity means sweat can no longer evaporate and, therefore, cooling is also not possible.
Homeless people are listed as a vulnerable group of people in Public Health England’s Heatwave Plan which warns of “higher rates of chronic disease (often poorly controlled), smoking, respiratory conditions, substance dependencies and mental illness” among rough sleepers.
But having plans in place is no guarantee of solving the issue for people on the street, said Dr Hajat.
“Homeless people may not be on the GP list or they may not be easily contactable,” he said. “The kind of interventions that people would be encouraged to take, such as seeking out air conditioning rooms or drinking cold water – homeless individuals may just be unable to access those kinds of interventions.
“It may involve seeking out libraries or supermarkets for air conditioning, I think the plans could be integrated in a much more effective way.”
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The risks are not limited to extreme temperatures either, Dr Hajat added. Global warming means that “there will be adverse health impacts occurring at temperatures much more moderate than the values set out by SWEP”.
“Because those days occur with much greater frequency. That’s where the biggest impacts lies,” Dr Hajat concluded.
Neither Scotland or Wales have centralised plans or protocols to tackle extreme heat or cold in the same fashion as England but homelessness charities, shelters and frontline teams do.
The UK as a whole is lagging behind other countries in preparing for hot weather in particular.
Downie cited how France manages heatwaves as an example. The Crisis expert told The Big Issue how public spaces with air-conditioning are opened up in towns and cities in France during hot spells. Meanwhile, ad-hoc cooling centres are set up in Canada to fulfil the same purpose.
There is no such measure in the UK.
“We’ve got some catching up to do,” said Downie. “We’ve learned through the pandemic, that when you treat rough sleeping as a public health issue, you can do a hell of a lot of good.
“It always was a public health emergency, particularly in times of extreme weather. That spirit of Everyone In should apply all the time anyway, but especially when there’s extreme heat and extreme cold or storm conditions.”
How does climate change impact housing?
It’s not only people already living on the streets and facing the elements who will be hit by climate change. The issue is going to affect how and where homes are built both now and in the future.
Some areas of the world – including parts of the UK – are likely to become uninhabitable, which means more pressure on housing in-land or high above sea level.
Rising seas are going to create climate refugees in places like Fairbourne in north Wales – a coastal village that is expected to be one of the first to be decommissioned due to climate change.
Meanwhile, houses are going to have to be energy efficient to prevent climate change but also more resilient to the impacts the issue will bring.
Claire Brown, a PHD researcher at the University of Manchester, told The Big Issue that not only is the UK facing a climate crisis but a housing crisis with a chronic lack of social homes.
“If we’re building housing that actually is going to have an inherent issue around overheating, which means that they may have to retrofit cooling in like air conditioning or mechanical ventilation you’re adding to the burden on those tenants.
“You’re adding into that as a problem and that then becomes a bigger issue because if you can’t pay the bills, then you’re at risk of eviction and the worst-case scenario is that leads to homelessness. If you don’t have suitable shelter, then that is going to lead to bigger health issues.”
More than 70 per cent of housing in the UK is more than 30 years old and will require retrofitting to deal with the rising temperatures.
Heatwaves are already a big killer in the UK – around 2,500 excess deaths were linked to spells of hot weather in 2020.
Growing temperatures also risk increasing the number of people living in fuel poverty to adapt to the growing issue of overheating.
An estimated 3.2 million households suffer from fuel poverty in England with that figure on the rise through the pandemic and with rising energy prices.
While currently cooling isn’t the big issue it may become, now is the time to adapt to build new social housing that is prepared for the issue, whether it be placing bedrooms where they will suffer from less overheating or even simple things like blinds to make homes more energy efficient.
“If we’re building social housing that doesn’t have that in-built ability to prevent human health risks and risk of death, then we’ve got an absolutely massive, massive problem,” added Brown.
“I think we’ve got this gap in supply of social housing in particular but also we’ve got this gap in what is being built, which I think is just creating this big problem for the future. I want to see more bravery, and boldness in councils taking the lead to build climate resilient social housing without waiting for legislation to catch up.
“But there are low-cost options too. For example, in the summer if you shut your curtains, you can actually help reduce the temperature of bedrooms and lounges, so that you’re not overheating – so it’s not new technology, it just needs to become the norm that we see.”
How does air pollution affect homelessness?
Homelessness is bad for health and people who experience life on the streets are at a higher risk of respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
It was this kind of information that urged governments around the UK to protect rough sleepers during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, the Everyone In scheme used in England to put homeless people up in hotels and other emergency accommodation saved 226 lives in the first lockdown.
According to the World Health Organisation, 4.2 million people die every year as a result of exposure to ambient air pollution.
Air pollution can be particularly high during heatwaves and Dr Hajat told The Big Issue that, while there is limited research on how it affects homeless people specifically, there is reason for concern.
“I think it’s a very reasonable assumption,” he said. “Their exposure to pollution is also going to be heightened and as a result there will be adverse impacts.”
As climate change continues and air pollution grows, homeless people are among those who will be at greater risk of sickness or death as a result.