Housing

How to help a homeless person on the street in cold weather

Being out in the cold can be dangerous, especially if you have nowhere else to go. Here’s how you can help a person experiencing homelessness this winter.

homelessness

It's not just rough sleepers who may find themselves out in the cold. Nicholas was a postgraduate student and management accountant for sizable companies in the North West. After trying and failing to receive benefits for his disability, he began sofa surfing with friends in 2009. Image: Centre for Homelessness Impact

Cold weather is enough of a health hazard in these times of expensive energy bills but if you are experiencing homelessness it can be deadly.

Homelessness is bad enough for health in the best of weather – official statistics show 741 people died while homeless in England and Wales in 2021 – but sub-zero temperatures and icy conditions make sleeping rough on the streets truly dangerous.

The Met Office has warned that snow and ice could bring “significant disruption” to the UK this week, with temperatures set to plummet below freezing. 

Tuesday could be the coldest night of the year so far, according to the Met Office, and spells of rain, sleet and snow are likely to continue for much of the week.  

With climate change meaning extreme weather events like 2018’s Beast from the East blizzards are likely to happen more frequently, it’s important to know what to do to help people out on the street if you’re out and about. Your intervention could save a life.

This is how to help a homeless person in the cold weather.

Ask if they need anything

Striking up a conversation is a good course of action whatever the weather – homelessness can take a huge mental toll and loneliness and isolation often comes with the territory.

A warm greeting can make a big difference but so can asking what the person might need. The offer of a hot drink or food can go a long way as can the offer of a woolly hat, gloves or a warm coat.

Lots of organisations around the country collect warm coats to distribute to people who need it while charity shops can offer a cheap alternative.

Maybe the person you meet will decline the offer of any help. That’s okay. The important thing is to speak up and ask the question in the first place.

Check if Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (Swep) is in place

When temperatures fall below 0°C, councils open up emergency accommodation to give people who are sleeping rough a warm place to take shelter. This is known as the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol, abbreviated to Swep.

As well as opening up additional indoor spaces, the protocol sees frontline outreach teams step up shifts to ensure no one is left out on the street.

Plenty of local authorities brought Swep into operation in response to the latest cold snap on February 6. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) extended its level 2 cold weather alert to run until February 8.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced the protocol would be brought in for the third time in winter 2022/23 amid forecasts that temperatures would plummet.

Swep was previously used in London for a 12-day period in December when more than 600 people were brought indoors as well as in a later period of cold weather in January.

The protocol was also introduced in Oxfordshire, Kent, Stoke and other parts of the UK.

Hannah Faulkner, head of rough sleeping services at homelessness charity St Mungo’s, said: “These low temperatures can kill people who are street homeless and it is absolutely right this is treated as an emergency.

“During periods of cold and extreme weather it is essential that members of the public, people experiencing homelessness and other support services are all aware that additional accommodation and support is available.”

If you see someone out on the street in the cold, check with your local authority to see if Swep is in operation.

Point people in the direction of a warm space

You may also be able to put people in the direction of a warm space to stave off the cold. Warm spaces have been set up across the country to give people a safe and warm space to get refuge away from the cold. 

A coalition of charities launched the campaign Warm Welcome to help churches, community groups, businesses and councils set up the warm banks. There are more than 4,300 warm spaces open and they offer a lifeline to people who do not have a heated home. 

You can find a map of all the warm spaces on Warm Welcome’s website here. You can search by location to find your local warm banks, and many of these offer other services like food and entertainment. 

Another way to find a warm bank near you is to look on your local council’s website or contact it directly. Even if it is not running a warm bank itself, it should be able to direct you to a charity or other community organisation which is offering support this winter.

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StreetLink is an app and website that lets members of the public in England and Wales alert local outreach teams to the location of people sleeping rough.

The service, which has been running for a decade and operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, helps to connect people experiencing homelessness with support services that can help them.

StreetLink has been widely adopted and Mayor of London Khan encouraged Londoners to download the app or use the service’s website if they are concerned about someone during the latest cold snap.

It is worthwhile having the app downloaded on your smartphone if you have one and if you spot someone and you are concerned for their welfare, it’s worth filing a report on the app.

Contact emergency services

Of course, if the person you meet on the street is showing signs of being unwell then calling the emergency services should be the first course of action.

If you are concerned about someone sleeping rough who is under 18 years of age, StreetLink also advises that you contact the police rather than alerting the service.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future. 

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