Local authorities across the country have this week launched Severe Weather Emergency Protocols (Swep) after the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) issued a level three heat alert for the heatwave.
These measures, which include increasing outreach patrols, handing out sunscreen and directing rough sleepers to cool spaces, are currently triggered at the discretion of local authorities.
But with heatwaves becoming more intense and frequent due to climate change, there have been calls for the response to be made mandatory to save lives on the street.
“We think it would be much better if Swep was enshrined in law and local authorities had a duty to ensure people are safe from extreme weather,” said Jess Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness.
“At the moment it is very inconsistently applied, it often leaves people who are physically vulnerable in the lurch, having to find ways of surviving 30 degree temperatures on the streets.”
Heatwaves can be deadly – HKSA figures show there were more than 1,600 excess heat deaths in England in the summer of 2021.
Hot spells pose a heightened risk to rough sleepers who often have nowhere to shelter and limited access to water and sunscreen, leaving them vulnerable to heat stroke, heat exhaustion and other conditions.
Homeless people are listed as an at-risk group in Public Health England’s Heatwave Plan, which means they are to be contacted with health advice when a heat health alert is issued.
That response can involve Swep, but it is more commonly triggered during the winter when temperatures below freezing are forecast for three consecutive nights. One problem is there is no strict definition of extreme weather, for example some local authorities triggered Swep for high winds for the first time earlier this year in response to Storm Eunice.
It is up to councils when – or if – they invoke Swep and there is no set temperature at which it applies during heatwaves.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan triggered Swep on Wednesday, writing to all London boroughs to mobilise rough sleeping services, though his advice stopped short of providing shelter.
Khan said: “Across the capital, we are taking action to assist those forced to sleep rough in these extremely high temperatures, by increasing welfare checks, providing plenty of water and sunscreen and ensuring people sleeping rough know where to access cool spaces and water fountains.”
Grassroots groups had already acted as temperatures rose early in the week. Streets Kitchen opened its Solidarity Hub in north London offering a space to shelter and shower from 11am to early evening during the heatwave.
Councils have opened their doors in some areas of the country – a hostel, O’Hanlon House, and daytime services were made available in Oxford to offer shelter.
Meanwhile in Slough, volunteers at Slough Outreach criticised the council for issuing rough sleepers camping in a tent in a local park with a letter demanding they move on as temperatures hit 32 degrees on Monday.
“Where were they supposed to go? There was no information given to direct them to support services that are available,” said Shin Dhoter, a community outreach worker at Slough Outreach.
“You need to provide some other alternative, really, and so that you go there for help. We’re going out giving out bottles of water and sun cream and stuff like that. But these people need shelter really. How much water can you drink?”
A Slough Borough Council spokesperson confirmed that Swep was launched on Tuesday and will run to July 20.
They added: “The SBC rough sleeper/outreach team were out on Monday, providing advice and information regarding the extreme weather, sun cream and water. The council outreach team is very proactive in Slough and visit known spots regularly.”
Frontline homelessness organisation Homeless Link says Swep creates pressure on homelessness services and should be used as a short-term measure alongside wider, more established homelessness provision.
Every area should work to create year-round routes for people to access accommodation in order to prevent rough sleeping, Homeless Link added, including access to supported housing or independent accommodation that can end a person’s homelessness for good.
Taking action also comes at a cost for local authorities. Crisis chief executive Matt Downie told The Big Issue that councils must receive funding to step in during emergencies while a long-term national plan to end rough sleeping would make an emergency response obsolete.
“With climate change, extreme weather events are on the rise. Severe heat can be as bad as severe cold for people’s health, so in the same way councils put Swep into action in the winter when the weather is very cold, it should also be in action during heatwaves, with funding given to local authorities to be able to keep people safe.” said Downie.
“Ultimately, we need to see a long-term response put in place so no one is forced to sleep rough and be exposed to dangerous weather events. Government should ensure their updated rough sleeping strategy enables local authorities to rapidly support everyone sleeping rough into safe accommodation, as we saw happen during the pandemic. Rough sleeping is always a danger to life, and we need to treat it as such.”
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