BLOG: “Why can’t you do this all year round?”

Published: Friday, 10th March 2023

An opinion piece by Cllr Linda Smith, cabinet member for housing:

This has felt like an especially long winter and it isn’t over yet. With freezing weather again this week, many of us have been worrying if we can afford to turn the heating on. And for people experiencing rough sleeping, emergency beds are open once more.

When the council activates our severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP) to make these emergency beds available, we usually get asked the same question – why can’t you do this all year round?

The simple answer is that we do. SWEP is an important part of our services for people experiencing rough sleeping. It’s a potential lifeline when it’s freezing, available to anyone who wants to come inside. But we do much more than provide emergency beds.

Next week cabinet will be voting on a new housing, homelessness and rough sleeping strategy setting out our plans to provide affordable and low carbon homes, improve housing conditions and do more to prevent homelessness and rough sleeping.

A crucial part of these plans is the Oxfordshire Homeless Alliance, launched last April. The Alliance is a £3.8m ‘housing led’ service with the aim of preventing and reducing rough sleeping across the county. It brings together the majority of outreach, accommodation and prevention services in a system-wide approach to tackling homelessness.

When we say ‘housing led’ we also mean a new way of helping people. Until now, people experiencing rough sleeping would normally move from the streets to independent living in stages. This approach assumes that people need to engage with support services before they are ready to move on to the next stage.

Housing led approaches like our Housing First model take a different view. The crucial first step is to provide a settled roof over someone’s head, without preconditions like engaging with a treatment service. Wraparound support can then be provided to help them maintain their tenancies.

Our contribution to the Alliance and other services we commission directly mean that up to 341 beds are available for people experiencing rough sleeping in our city, all year round.

In January, The Porch Day Centre showed me round the SWEP venue they run. It’s not exactly luxurious. But everyone has a camp bed, a clean sleeping bag and a bit of personal space, together with snacks and hot drinks and breakfast in the morning.

Vitally, it gives our brilliant St Mungo’s outreach service another opportunity to speak to people in the morning and offer support. So far this winter 25 people have moved on from SWEP into more settled accommodation rather than returning to the streets.

SWEP is open tonight. As the Met Office is forecasting warmer overnight temperatures for the weekend, it will probably close on Saturday morning. Our work will go on.