Oxford City Council has extended its severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP) again to keep emergency beds open for people experiencing rough sleeping.
Emergency beds will remain available for anyone who wants to come inside until Monday morning (15 February).
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 and a warmer night in the middle of a freezing spell.
The forecast is for freezing overnight temperatures tonight, with the ‘feels like’ temperature not expected to rise above zero until late on Sunday evening. The council is using its discretion to keep beds open on Sunday night so that outreach has the opportunity to engage with SWEP users on Monday morning.
SWEP will probably close on Monday as the current outlook is that nights will be considerably warmer at the start of next week. The council will keep the situation under review.
In previous years SWEP 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.
How does this winter compare with previous years?
Prolonged spells of very cold weather mean that SWEP will have already been open for 37 nights by Monday morning. This includes a record stretch of 19 consecutive nights over Christmas and the New Year. If SWEP closes on Monday, the current period of activation will be 13 nights and this would be the second longest on record.
The only winter when SWEP has been open for longer was 2012/13, when emergency beds were available on 47 nights. In 2017/18, when the Beast from the East gripped the UK in February and March, SWEP was activated for 35 nights.
Direct comparisons are however difficult as in both those winters SWEP was usually only activated on a Met Office forecast of three or more consecutive freezing nights. This is only the second winter where the council activates SWEP on every freezing 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 the high risk of transmission in shared spaces.
The council has offered safe accommodation to everyone experiencing rough sleeping in Oxford since the pandemic hit last March. 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.
“We’re extending SWEP again over the weekend and offering emergency shelter for anyone experiencing rough sleeping who wants to come inside.”
“It’s going to be freezing tonight and ‘feels like’ temperatures will remain below zero until Sunday evening. By using our discretion to keep beds open on Sunday night we’ll give outreach the chance to engage with SWEP users on Monday morning.
“It seems particularly cruel that we’ve had to activate SWEP for 37 nights already during this pandemic winter. However, we’ll continue to take every opportunity to offer shelter and support to people experiencing rough sleeping as we believe that nobody should have to sleep rough in Oxford – whatever the weather.”
Councillor Mike Rowley, cabinet member for affordable housing and housing the homeless