New arrangements for offering emergency winter beds to people experiencing rough sleeping

Published: Thursday, 3rd December 2020

The pandemic means there will be new arrangements for offering emergency beds to people sleeping rough in Oxford this winter.

Oxford City Council activates its severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP) during freezing winter weather and makes beds available for anyone who wants to come inside. The council has offered safe accommodation to everyone experiencing rough sleeping in Oxford since March and people accessing SWEP this winter are likely to have refused all previous offers of help, returned to the streets or be newly homeless.

Until this winter SWEP beds were provided in shared sleeping spaces and government guidance says that councils can continue to do this where they believe SWEP can be provided in a Covid-safe manner.

However, the council believes this is not a realistic option given that Oxford returned to high alert (Tier 2) this week and there is a high risk of transmission in shared spaces. During the first lockdown vulnerable homeless people in England were moved out of shared hostels and this resulted in an infection rate of around 6-8%, whereas in American homeless shelters – where communal spaces remained open – the infection rate was between 60 and 70%.

This winter people who want a SWEP space will be offered their own room for the night.

Working with St Mungo’s, Aspire and Homeless Oxfordshire, the council has secured 22 rooms across three venues and contingency plans are in place to provide more if the need arises. The use of communal spaces will only be considered in exceptional circumstances.

SWEP arrangements

SWEP is emergency accommodation for anyone experiencing rough sleeping – including people who have no right to claim benefits or housing in the UK or who have refused offers of accommodation and support.

The council will activate SWEP on every night the Met Office forecasts freezing overnight temperatures. It also uses its discretion to open emergency beds in other severe weather conditions. These can include snow on the ground, sub-zero ‘feels like’ temperatures or a warmer night in the middle of a prolonged freezing spell.

The St Mungo’s outreach and assessment team (OxSPOT) will allocate SWEP rooms to people during the day and notify them where and when they need to go.

People who have not been allocated a SWEP room in advance will be able to present at O'Hanlon House between 11 pm and midnight.

One of the SWEP venues is suitable for people with dogs and OxSPOT can also arrange free kennels if necessary. Kennels must be arranged in advance and are not available on the night.

Housing vulnerable homeless people during the pandemic

On 26 March the government issued an ‘everyone in’ direction for English councils to provide emergency housing for rough sleepers and vulnerable homeless people to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In Oxford, this included people sleeping on the streets and those in Floyds Row and the sit up (assessment) service at O’Hanlon House.

The council moved quickly to comply with the direction and secured 121 self-contained hotel and student rooms within two weeks. As the first lockdown eased and leasing agreements with hotels and colleges came to an end in July, the council leased the YHA and Canterbury House to provide 118 rooms of interim housing for another year.

Interim housing is a bridge between the emergency accommodation and more sustainable housing. It also means that the council can provide accommodation and support for people becoming homeless now and in the coming months.

Since May, the number of people experiencing rough sleeping has typically been in the 20s. Around a dozen of these have refused all offers of help, returned to the streets or been evicted from emergency and interim housing. People who have become newly homeless during the pandemic have usually been accommodated quickly.

So far the council has housed 285 people under ‘everyone in’ arrangements. Of these, 116 have been supported into more permanent housing and this includes a number of people who had been sleeping rough on a long term basis.


“The pandemic demands that we take a different approach to SWEP and we’ve worked with partners to provide individual rooms rather than shared spaces during freezing weather. Together with the ongoing work we’ve undertaken since the government called for ‘everyone in’ back in March, SWEP arrangements mean that vulnerable homeless people will be able to access safe, self-contained rooms when they choose to come inside this winter.”

Councillor Mike Rowley, cabinet member for affordable housing and housing the homeless

"Cold weather can kill. It is vital that everyone who is on the streets, or who is at risk of rough sleeping, can access self-contained accommodation as soon as possible, with adequate support where it is needed. We will continue to work with Oxford City Council to save lives this winter. If people are concerned about a person on the streets, we would urge people to make referrals to the StreetLink website or download the app. StreetLink connects people experiencing homelessness with the local support and services available to them.”

Matt Rudd, regional manager for St Mungo’s in Oxford