Last winter Oxford City Council asked for feedback from rough sleepers using emergency winter beds – activated on 18 nights over five separate periods – about their experience of accessing services.
Overall, the council and local homelessness organisations provided emergency accommodation to 94 individual rough sleepers for a total of 368 stays.
When the council activates its severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP) emergency bed spaces are made available for any rough sleeper – even if they would not normally qualify for a bed in the city’s adult homeless pathway.
SWEP beds normally open on the first night of a Met Office forecast that the overnight temperature will drop to zero or below for three or more consecutive nights. SWEP beds can open on a discretionary basis during other adverse weather conditions such as snow on the ground or low “feels like” temperature forecasts.
On seven of the 18 nights the normal threshold for activation was not reached but officers consulted with SWEP providers and used their discretion to open the emergency beds.
The need for emergency beds was lower than during the winter of 2017/18, which saw the highest ever level of SWEP usage. Prolonged freezing weather in February and March last year meant that SWEP was activated on 36 nights in 2017/18, and 141 individual rough sleepers used SWEP for 827 stays in total.
The highest SWEP intake last winter was on 2 February, when 29 people used an emergency bed – compared with 41 on the corresponding busiest night in 2017/18. The average number of people using SWEP each night also fell from 24 in 2017/18 to 20 last winter.
SWEP beds were provided in three venues, with most people accommodated at Homeless Oxfordshire’s O’Hanlon House and A2Dominion’s Simon House.
On top of SWEP beds during freezing weather, a group of Oxford churches opened 20 beds in the Oxford Winter Night Shelter (OWNS) from the beginning of January until the end of March – twice the capacity of 2018. OWNS was open to any rough sleeper who had been verified by the outreach team, OxSPOT.
The council introduced a SWEP user questionnaire to learn about people’s experiences of SWEP and their suggestions for improvement. This found that people were generally positive about their experience, that they rated the helpfulness of staff highly and that they would use SWEP again.
The most common way that rough sleepers found out that SWEP beds were available was hearing from day services and outreach workers. The most popular suggestions for improvement were not having to register every night they used a SWEP bed, longer opening hours and the provision of hot food.
For winter 2019/20 the council is in the process of converting the former jobcentre in Floyds Row into an assessment hub and shelter for up to 60 people experiencing homelessness or rough sleeping. Floyds Row will open for this winter and will include winterlong emergency shelter that will be available to everyone. The council expects that this should largely remove the need for SWEP provision.
Councillor Linda Smith, Deputy Leader and Board Member for Leisure and Housing, said: “SWEP relies on staff and volunteers in Oxford’s homelessness services stepping up and taking on extra shifts on top of their day jobs. I’m grateful for all their efforts last winter, particularly as seven of the 18 nights SWEP was open were discretionary and outside the usual protocol.
“This winter we’ll be opening up Floyds Row as an assessment hub and shelter for rough sleepers, and this will include winterlong emergency shelter available to anyone who wants to come inside. I hope this means we won’t need SWEP in future, as nobody should have to sleep rough in Oxford.”