Oxford City Council has activated its severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP) to make emergency shelter available this weekend for people experiencing rough sleeping.
Emergency shelter will now open for anyone who wants to come inside, initially from tonight (Friday 22 January) until Monday morning (25 January).
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 Met Office forecast is for freezing overnight temperatures over the whole weekend.
The council will decide whether or not to extend SWEP on Monday morning (25 January). The Met Office forecast currently suggests that SWEP may remain open on Monday night.
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 can 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.
SWEP and the pandemic
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 housing and support.
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 national lockdown and that there is a high risk of transmission in shared spaces.
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.
Housing vulnerable homeless people during the pandemic
The council believes that nobody should have to sleep rough in Oxford and is investing record sums to help achieve this goal. It expects to invest £9.1m preventing homelessness in 2021/22. This is a 44% increase on 2019/20, the last full year before the pandemic.
As the pandemic struck last March, the government issued an ‘everyone in’ direction for English councils to provide emergency housing for vulnerable homeless people, including those living in shared hostel spaces. The council moved quickly to comply and secured 121 self-contained hotel and student rooms within two weeks. As temporary agreements with hotels and colleges came to an end in July, the council leased two blocks to provide 118 rooms of interim housing for another year, managed by St Mungo’s.
Interim housing is a bridge from emergency accommodation and the streets, providing a breathing space for people to get the support they need to leave homelessness behind. By New Year the council had housed 303 people since the first lockdown, with 134 of these helped into more permanent housing.
This has been possible with the help of £2m from the Next Steps Accommodation Programme (NSAP). NSAP funding will also support the council to deliver longer term ‘housing led’ solutions over the next few years.
In the UK, homeless people have generally moved from the streets to independent living in stages. Housing led approaches like Housing First instead say that people should be offered permanent housing immediately and without preconditions like engaging with treatment services. The council is aiming to provide 20 Housing First flats by the end of March, and for this to be the default approach to ending rough sleeping in future.
The council is also working with Oxfordshire County Council, neighbouring districts and other local partners to develop a system wide approach to tackling homelessness across our county. A countywide steering group is developing a housing led strategy to achieve this, with new services expected to start running in 2022.
"We’re activating SWEP and offering emergency shelter to anyone experiencing rough sleeping who wants to come inside over the weekend.”
“The current forecast is for freezing overnight temperatures all weekend. We’re committed to doing what we can to protect vulnerable homeless people during this pandemic winter and will review the situation again on Monday morning.”
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.
“This year has been like no other, but that won’t stop us bringing people in from the cold. We are dealing with new situations all the time – recently our team supported a male who was sleeping in his car because his mother is shielding due to Covid-19. We were able to find him somewhere safe to stay. We are still working around the clock supporting people sleeping rough when they need us most. While staying in accommodation, our teams will work with people to find ways to leave the streets for good.”
Matt Rudd, Regional Manager for St Mungo’s in Oxford
If you are concerned about someone experiencing rough sleeping
If you are concerned about someone experiencing rough sleeping, you can contact OxSPOT on 07590 862049 or by emailing Outreach.Oxford@mungos.org.
OxSPOT is not an emergency service, but it will follow up all calls and emails as soon as possible.
You can also report a rough sleeper through the StreetLink website or call StreetLink on 0300 500 0914.
If you think someone’s life is in immediate danger, call 999.