Oxford City Council has extended its severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP) again for people experiencing rough sleeping.
This means that emergency accommodation will stay open until Thursday morning (7 January), when the council will review the situation. SWEP was activated on 23 December and has been open over the entire Christmas and New Year period.
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.
In previous years this was provided in shared spaces but the need to keep people safe during the pandemic means they are now offered their own room for the night.
The council activates SWEP on every night the Met Office forecasts freezing overnight temperatures. It also uses its discretion to do so 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 freezing spell.
The current Met Office forecast is for freezing overnight temperatures on Wednesday night and sub-zero ‘feels like’ temperatures tonight and tomorrow night. The council is therefore exercising its discretion to keep SWEP open for the next two nights.
The council will decide whether or not to extend SWEP further on Thursday morning (7 January). The current Met Office forecast suggests that SWEP may remain open beyond Thursday.
Allocating SWEP rooms
The St Mungo’s outreach and assessment team (OxSPOT) is already working intensively with people experiencing rough sleeping in Oxford. 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 11pm 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.
SWEP and the pandemic
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 is now in Tier 4 (stay at home) 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%.
Working with St Mungo’s, Aspire and Homeless Oxfordshire, the council has secured 25 rooms across three venues and contingency plans are in place to provide more if the need arises.
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.
The use of communal spaces will only be considered in exceptional circumstances.
"SWEP has been open since 23 December and we’re now keeping it open until Thursday morning, when we’ll review the situation again. I’d like to thank everyone who has stepped up to keep emergency beds open since before Christmas.
“OxSPOT is working intensively with people experiencing rough sleeping and will allocate SWEP rooms during the day, telling people how to access the service and where and when to go. If you are concerned about someone experiencing rough sleeping, you can contact OxSPOT on 07590 862049 or by emailing [email protected].
“OxSPOT is not an emergency service and will follow up all calls or emails as quickly as possible. If you think someone’s life is in immediate danger, call 999.”
Councillor Mike Rowley, cabinet member for affordable housing and housing the homeless