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How can I help homeless people during a UK heatwave?

With temperatures set to rise, people sleeping on the streets are at risk of dehydration and sunstroke. Here’s how you can help.

A UK heatwave is set to send temperatures rising over the next few days and the heat poses a particular danger for people experiencing homelessness with no shelter to get out of the sun.

While it’s widely understood that low temperatures in winter put the wellbeing of people experiencing homelessness at risk, it’s also true that particularly warm summers — which we can expect more of as the climate crisis worsens — can be harmful for people sleeping rough.

They’re faced with a battle to find cool spots to shelter in, cold drinking water and places to shower off, while being at higher risk of sunburn, dehydration and heatstroke.

The Met Office has issued the first-ever red warning for exceptional heat for parts of central, northern, eastern and southeastern England on July 18 and 19 with temperatures possibly reaching 40C.

There is also an amber warning in place for large parts of England and Wales, including Cornwall and west Wales, as well as parts of southern Scotland.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has also issued a level 4 heat-health alert for England. A level 4 alert is the highest on the UKHSA’s warning system and means illness may occur among the fit and healthy, and not just in high-risk groups including rough sleepers.

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“Heat-health alerts have now been issued to the majority of the country, with temperatures set to remain consistently high throughout the duration of the weekend and the start of next week,” said Dr Agostinho Sousa, head of extreme events and health protection at UKHSA.

“It is important to keep yourself hydrated and to find shade where possible when UV rays are strongest, between 11am and 3pm.

“If you have vulnerable family, friends and neighbours, make sure they are aware of how they can keep themselves protected from the warm weather.’’

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Petra Salva, director of rough sleeper, Westminster and migrant services at homelessness charity St Mungo’s, said sleeping rough in hot weather leaves people at risk of: heat cramps, heat rash, heat oedema, heat syncope, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

“Sleeping rough is always harmful and dangerous, but in particular when there are extreme changes to the weather like this week where we expect days of soaring temperatures,” said Salva

“This heat can be life-threatening, especially whilst the temperatures remain high for prolonged periods.”

Here are some tips for those unsure how to help someone sleeping rough in high temperatures.

Watch out for signs of heatstroke and heat-related illness

The NHS lists the some of the signs of heat exhaustion as: 

  • a headache
  • dizziness and confusion
  • loss of appetite and feeling sick
  • excessive sweating and pale, clammy skin
  • cramps in the arms, legs and stomach
  • fast breathing or pulse
  • a high temperature of 38C or above
  • being very thirsty

If you think someone has heatstroke you need to help them find somewhere to cool down immediately.

These are the steps to take to according to the NHS:

  • Move them to a cool place.
  • Get them to lie down and raise their feet slightly.
  • Get them to drink plenty of water. Sports or rehydration drinks are OK.
  • Cool their skin – spray or sponge them with cool water and fan them. Cold packs around the armpits or neck are good too.

Call 999 immediately if they start to breathe quickly or have shortness of breath, have a seizure, lose consciousness, or are not responsive.

Ask your local council if they will activate Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP)

When extreme weather poses a health risk, councils can activate Severe Weather Emergency Protocols.

These can be activated in response to high winds, freezing temperatures and snow as well as extreme heat. It’s up to the council whether they decide to activate Swep. While most local authorities are likely to open up places to shelter and reach out to rough sleepers under Swep, it is at the discretion of each authority.

If you believe your council should be activating Swep, you can contact them to let them know.

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Donate some sun cream

A simple way to help a disadvantaged person through the summer months is to give them a bottle of sun cream, whether it’s newly bought or a spare you had at home (as long as you haven’t had it for long – sunscreen can expire). 

Give out frozen water bottles

It can sometimes be tricky for people sleeping rough to locate good drinking water, and it becomes even more of a challenge in summer when they need to cool down and stay hydrated. If you plan to give away a bottle of water, stick it in the freezer the night before, so it will stay cold for longer and can also cool sticky foreheads. Even better, find out where your nearest water refill stations are and make sure the person has that information going forward.

If you give a person food, opt for ingredients which contain a lot of water such as juicy fruit or vegetables to help them stay hydrated.

Be generous with hats and sunglasses

It’s easy to underestimate the health-saving impact of sun hats and shades during the summer if we need only reach into a wardrobe to fish some out. But they can make a real difference in fending off sun and heatstroke, particularly to people who might not be able to escape the hot sun in a UK heatwave. 

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Donate a fan

A handheld fan can be a gamechanger for someone who can’t head indoors out of the sun or into air-conditioned buildings during a UK heatwave. Umbrellas can offer a person shade if they have nowhere else to go, too. 

Contact the local support team

If you see someone in need of medical attention in hot weather, don’t hesitate to call 999 to get them the help they need. Other expert organisations can offer support to those left without a home, including Streetlink — who will be sure to put you in touch with your local frontline services — Centrepoint, St Mungos, Crisis, Shelter and more.

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