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UK government refuses Sadiq Khan plea for £20m to protect refugees from freezing weather

Asylum evictions are adding to increasing pressure faced by local authorities during cold weather emergencies

Khan called for extra funding to stop newly-recognised refugees becoming homeless. Image: Greater London Authority

The UK government has refused a request from mayor of London Sadiq Khan for £20million of funding to stop refugees being evicted onto the streets in freezing temperatures.

Khan told The Big Issue government reluctance was putting lives at risk, despite the Home Office pausing hotel evictions for three days after the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) gets activated. 

But the pause, revealed by The Big Issue in December, does not cover the whole period, as SWEP can be activated for more than three days. In January’s recent cold snap, SWEP was active for 10 out of 11.

This mismatch resulted in cases like a vulnerable survivor of sex trafficking being evicted into -2C temperatures.

“The start of this year has seen persistent freezing conditions, putting vulnerable people at risk. In December I asked the government to play its part and deliver a comprehensive emergency winter package of support, to help prevent those most at risk sleeping in the cold this winter – something they have failed to do,” said Sadiq Khan, who requested £20m to end asylum evictions during full periods of cold weather.

The Big Issue understands the government simply highlighted existing funding it provides through the Rough Sleeping Initiative, including an additional £3m provided for the winter period.

Asylum evictions, sped up as part of Rishi Sunak’s drive to clear the asylum backlog, are adding to the strain on local authorities as they put in emergency efforts to bring rough sleepers off the streets during cold weather. 

One borough has turned part of its town hall into a warm space to keep people off the streets, as local leaders scramble to save the lives of rough sleepers when SWEP is active. Greenwich Council told The Big Issue a majority of those using the warm space inside its Woolwich Town Hall were recently evicted from hotels or had no recourse to public funds.

Local authorities must provide somewhere to sleep when SWEP is triggered by temperatures dropping below 0 for three consecutive nights. But the catch is this: they do not receive any additional funding to do so. Council staff scramble to find hotel accommodation, B&B spaces and anything they can lay their hands on within existing budgets. The stakes are high. But in total the borough managed to bring 57 people off the streets during the cold. In just two periods so far this winter, 99 people have needed help – already more than last winter.

In London, SWEP has already been active for 28 nights this winter, up from 15 nights in 2021/22, and on course to exceed 2020/21’s total of 35 nights.

The climate crisis is set to make the situation tougher – with life-threatening extreme weather becoming more common. As well as cold weather, campaigners have called for new laws to protect homeless people during heatwaves.

Claire Tugwell, Greenwich Council’s performance, policy and development manager for housing inclusion, is responsible for the borough’s frontline homelessness services. When the Big Issue visited on the last day of the SWEP activation, on 19 January, she was at the end of a long, draining period of emergency response.

“The warm space has been invaluable this year because it’s allowed us to pick up people that aren’t verified, people that have got no recourse [to public funds],” she said.

Asked about an increase in people homeless after eviction from asylum hotels, Tuwell said: “We’re definitely seeing an increase in what we’re getting. We’re trying our absolute hardest to work alongside the management companies for hotels etcetera to get prior notice for clients so at least we can try and assess them before they’re evicted.”

In the warm space, which is newly-opened this year, air beds lay on the floor, each with a duvet. Hot drinks, biscuits, and pot noodles sat on a table. Residents are brought in overnight and able to take a shower before they leave, but the space needs volunteers to man it overnight.

The warm space requires volunteers to keep it running. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

With SWEP ending on that Friday, Tugwell’s team also made the decision to extend the hotel stay of many through to Monday, so they were not left on the streets while services were closed over the weekend. Elsewhere, Brighton and Hove Council extended it during the weekend. 

SWEP had been activated on 8 January, then deactivated for a single day on 11 January before being reactivated on 12 January through to 19 January. Despite not being obliged to, Tugwell’s team decided to keep those in hotel accommodation booked in during the single day, 

Greenwich follows Sadiq Khan’s ‘In for Good’ principle, and is able to use SWEP as an opportunity to make longer contact with rough sleepers and get many off the streets permanently. Usually, only those assessed as ‘priority need’ can be given support by the council – SWEP provides a chance to help everyone. It works: during the most recent SWEP activation, the council has been able to make 54 offers for permanent placements.

“If you can get someone in, and get them into a PRS [private rental sector property], it’s amazing,” said Tugwell.

However, these efforts come up against a constant flow of new rough sleepers as the capital’s housing emergency becomes ever-more stark. 

“The stark reality is that the continuing cost-of-living crisis is putting unbearable strain on households and councils across the country, causing a conveyor belt of rough sleepers onto our streets,” said Khan.

The pressures, without extra funding, are clear. When SWEP is activated, Tugwell and her team will look at other areas where budgets have been underspent, trying to find resources wherever they can. Yet, with councils across the country tipping into bankruptcy, this is hardly a sustainable solution.

“It’s very stressful, it’s all hands on deck,” she said. “The flow to the streets is massive all over. No matter how many we’re picking up and moving on, what we’ve noticed in the data from DLUHC is that the flow to the streets of new rough sleepers is consistently high at the moment. It’s wave after wave after wave.”

“It’s a finite amount of resource we’ve got. We know it’s likely to be stretched again, because we’re very unlikely to get through to spring without another trigger.”

Michelle Binfield, rough sleeping programme director at London Councils, said councils faced increasing problems as the winter continues.

“Local authorities in London are facing unprecedented homelessness pressures. Longer periods of extremely cold weather, coupled with increasing numbers of people sleeping rough, is putting even more pressure on already over-stretched services and budgets,” Binfield told The Big Issue.

“Having already had three SWEP activations this early in the winter, there are likely to be more difficult times ahead for those tasked with keeping rough sleepers safe during severe weather. Shared emergency facilities are not what London boroughs wish to be relying on, but the shortage of self-contained accommodation makes it increasingly necessary. We are grateful for the support of resilience colleagues, volunteers, and our voluntary sector partners for helping us make the best of this difficult new reality.”

A DLUHC spokesperson said: “We are determined to end rough sleeping for good and are working hand-in-hand with the homelessness sector and other partners to make sure people have a roof over their head and the support to rebuild their lives. 

“We have given councils £2bn to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, and as part of this London has been allocated over £190m through the Rough Sleeping Initiative. We will continue to work to end rough sleeping completely.”

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