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Severe Weather and Rough Sleeping in London: What Can We Do to Make a Difference?

Last year, more than 10,000 people experienced rough sleeping in London. As our capital grappled with the challenges of severe weather earlier this year, it raised the pressing question: How can we best help and support those experiencing rough sleeping when the temperature drops?

This article explores the vital role that community partnerships and emergency protocols play in providing support for people experiencing rough sleeping in London during severe weather conditions.

What is the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP)?

The Severe Weather Emergency Protocol, or SWEP, is an emergency response to severe weather conditions. It is designed to increase safety and support for all rough sleepers.1

Since 2018, the Greater London Authority (GLA) has provided SWEP guidance for London’s councils.2 All 32 boroughs of London, along with the City of London, adopted this guidance, which is activated either by local authorities, or by the GLA when there is a potential threat to life due to severe weather conditions.3

Any weather conditions that increase the risk of harm to people sleeping rough can trigger the activation of SWEP. These include extreme cold, wind, snow, rain, and even heat, although currently, pan-London SWEP is automatically activated by the GLA when the Met Office forecasts temperatures at or below 0°C.1,2,4

How does SWEP support people who experience rough sleeping?

The Severe Weather Emergency Protocol supports people experiencing rough sleeping in two different ways.

  1. Firstly, SWEP provides emergency accommodation to rough sleepers to guarantee their safety and well-being.3
  2. Secondly, it uses the opportunity presented by the move into emergency accommodation to implement the “In For Good” principle.3

The “In For Good” principle requires that rough sleepers placed in emergency accommodation during a SWEP placement should not be moved until they have been assessed and have a support plan in place to help end their rough sleeping experience. This support plan should consider their needs, include a realistic transition plan, and nominate a lead support agency.2

Infographic: What happens when SWEP is activated during severe cold weather in London? Source: 2, 5.

Volunteers play a vital role when SWEP is activated

While some local authorities allocate funds for temporary staff, SWEP services are usually supplementary to regular operations, which can strain existing resources. This means that existing staff may need to work additional hours and late shifts during periods of severe weather.3

Volunteers help to alleviate the strain on existing resources, ensuring that essential services can operate smoothly. Volunteers not only dedicate their time, but also bring a sense of compassion and community spirit to their roles, providing comfort and support to those in need.

Example: REACT volunteers support London SWEP activation

On the 29th November 2023, SWEP was activated citywide in London, prompting requests from two local authorities to REACT, an emergency and crisis response charity that provides humanitarian action both in the UK and overseas.6

In an immediate and efficient response, 7 REACT responders volunteered a total of 34 hours overnight from 8PM to 8AM. These volunteers played a pivotal role in ensuring the smooth operation of emergency SWEP centres established by the local authorities.

Beyond practical tasks such as setting up beds and distributing food, the volunteers provided emotional support, engaging in conversations, helping rough sleepers settle in, and offering warm beverages along with a compassionate listening ear.

The volunteers’ rapid response and vital assistance not only supported the local authorities during SWEP activation, but also safeguarded and assisted London’s most vulnerable residents.

Visit REACT’s article for further information on this event here.

 

However, the unpredictable nature of when SWEP is activated can make it difficult to recruit and sustain a consistent pool of volunteers.7 This could result in a long-term shortage of volunteers, as it is difficult to plan and recruit people who can volunteer for SWEP services at such short notice.

Yet, voluntary and community sector (VCS) partnerships are key to addressing this challenge. By encouraging collaborative relationships with local organisations and community groups, a more dependable and accessible volunteer network can be created. These efforts also strengthen community resilience by fostering connections and encouraging shared responsibilities in supporting rough sleepers during severe weather.

What is the London Communities Emergencies Partnership (LCEP) and their role in coordinating the voluntary and community sector?

When SWEP is activated, LCEP coordinates the voluntary and community sector response.

Launched in 2022, LCEP aims to bring together the wider voluntary and community sector to deal with emergencies in the capital.

Run in partnership by London Plus and the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership, LCEP exists to bring together a resilient and diverse network of formal and informal organisations, ensuring readiness for different emergencies. Be it a fire, terrorist attack, food shortage, or pandemic – LCEP is always ready.

LCEP also acts as a connection between London’s charities and community groups, facilitating collaboration with statutory bodies, so that every emergency response is coordinated.

The reliability, flexibility, and adaptability inherent in LCEP’s approach are fundamental to its effectiveness.

In connection to SWEP, LCEP’s coordination efforts are integral to ensuring a streamlined response to weather-related emergencies, aligning with its broader commitment to preparedness and community support.

Case Study: LCEP and VCS Partners in Action

The recent response by LCEP and VCS partners to the activation of SWEP serves as a compelling case study illustrating proactive emergency coordination. This example showcases the key elements of LCEP’s response, exploring the importance of volunteers and key partnerships with VCS organisations during severe weather emergencies.

From the 8th – 11th January 2024, and the 12th – 20th  January 2024, the GLA issued a SWEP alert, spanning a period of 13 days. During this period, support requests were received from 5 local authorities.

A total of 7 partners were involved in this coordinated effort. The partners in action included:

  • British Red Cross (BRC)
  • REACT
  • Islamic Relief
  • London Boroughs Faith Network (LBFN)
  • First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY)
  • Bexley Voluntary Service Council (BVSC)
  • London Communities Emergencies Partnership (LCEP)

To facilitate seamless communication between partners, existing communication channels were used. These channels were regularly updated with the latest contacts and relevant details, which played an important role in distributing real time information and coordinating proactive efforts among partners.

Recognising SWEP’s unique demands, new systems were also introduced by partners, including a shift tracker, coordination calls, and shared call notes. Notably, centre contact roles were shared among partners for the first time, improving efficiency and resource utilisation.

Approximately 35 volunteers, representing all partners, played an active role in coordinating efforts during the SWEP activation. By demonstrating strong community engagement in response to the emergency, these volunteers positively contributed to sustaining the duration and longevity of the SWEP activation, while also safeguarding those experiencing rough sleeping in London.

The British Red Cross reported significant outcomes during this period, including:

  • The coverage of 41 shifts
  • Overnight centre openings facilitated by partners 27 times
  • An average of 10 service users per centre

These outcomes resulted in an average of 270 people experiencing rough sleeping who were provided shelter and support. The dedication and support offered by the volunteers did not go unnoticed, as council staff on-site expressed gratitude for their assistance.

LCEP’s proactive approach, in collaboration with VCS partners, shows the effectiveness of coordinated emergency responses for rough sleepers during severe weather. The most recent SWEP activation serves as a testament to LCEP’s commitment to fostering partnerships, implementing innovative systems, and mobilising volunteers to ensure the safeguarding and well-being of rough sleepers impacted by severe weather.

 

Why it matters

Rough sleeping is one of the most visible types of homelessness, and is defined as sleeping outside, or in places that are not designed for people to live in, such as cars, doorways, and abandoned buildings.8

In 2022/23, the number of people sleeping rough in London reached 10,053, marking a 21% increase from the 8,329 people recorded in 2021/22, and a 54% increase from the 6,508 people recorded a decade earlier.9 As shown in the figure below, among all London boroughs, Westminster, Camden, Lambeth, Ealing, and Newham have the highest count of rough sleepers. Additionally, in 2022/23, twenty-nine of the thirty-three boroughs in London reported a rise in the number of people sleeping rough since 2021/22.9

Infographic: 2022/23 demographics. Source: 9.

Who provides emergency accommodation for SWEP?

Emergency accommodation for SWEP is usually commissioned by each local authority when the protocol is activated. The choice of providers depends on the service required and the availability of housing in the local area.

For example, SWEP may be integrated into other services, such as an arrangement where communal spaces in hostels are opened when SWEP is activated. Alternatively, it may involve using services like B&Bs, hotels, or acquiring beds in shelters or hostels through spot purchasing.7

As well as individual local authority responses, the GLA also commissions the pan-London overflow of SWEP beds, which becomes available when the pan-London SWEP is activated, and when local services are at full capacity.7

Given the variety of accommodation types and the involvement of both local authorities and the GLA, it is worth highlighting that the number of successful SWEP accommodation outcomes in London during the 2022/23 period has increased compared to 2021/22 (Figure 2).9 An accommodation outcome refers to instances where outreach teams and other services successfully help rough sleepers into various types of accommodation, most commonly temporary accommodation, night shelters, and hostels.9,10

This increase could be caused by the colder winter in 2022/23, leading to a greater need for SWEP emergency accommodation compared to 2021/22. Alternatively, it might suggest that these facilities have improved their ability to offer resources and support in response to the increased numbers of rough sleepers in London.9

How does SWEP differ across London boroughs?

The effectiveness of SWEP can vary across London boroughs, reflecting different responses and access to resources. Some boroughs may apply comprehensive and proactive measures, ensuring swift and widespread assistance, while others may face challenges in providing support.3

Although all local authorities in London and the GLA have received funding through the Government’s Rough Sleeping Initiative, there is no funding explicitly allocated for SWEP.11 Consequently, general homelessness prevention funding is used when SWEP comes into force. This poses challenges for local authorities already grappling with the demand for housing and homelessness advice.3

Challenges with SWEP in London

Even though SWEP is automatically activated in London during sub-zero temperatures, health risks can manifest at milder outdoor temperatures, ranging from 4-8°C.4,12 These health risks are significant given rough sleepers often face pre-existing health issues that are either caused by or exacerbated by homelessness. These health issues may be further complicated due to alcohol or substance use, pain, or medication.4

In addition to sub-zero temperatures, The Museum of Homelessness’ Dying Homeless Project reported a higher number of deaths during the summer months in 2022, challenging the widespread belief that deaths among rough sleepers are more common in winter.13 This trend is likely influenced by the heightened risk of heat-related illnesses, worsened by the challenges faced by rough sleepers in staying cool due to inadequate shelter, limited access to showers, and restricted availability of drinking water.4

It is important not to assume that rough sleepers have developed resilience to severe weather. If anything, the risk of harm and death due to severe weather exposure is higher for those on the streets. Therefore, there is a need for a flexible and ‘common sense’ approach to SWEP activation.

However, as an emergency response, SWEP faces challenges in year-round delivery. This is due to its reliance on existing staff and volunteers surpassing their regular duties, and resorting to short-term, and costly emergency accommodation options such as B&Bs or hotels. This then applies pressure on other services which can compromise the quality of support available to rough sleepers.7

How you can make a difference

The increasing numbers of rough sleepers in London, alongside the challenges associated with severe weather emergencies, highlight the growing need for volunteers and charities to continue supporting SWEP provision and the well-being of those sleeping rough.

Encouragingly, half of adults in the UK are interested in local volunteering activities, with 1 in 7 considering volunteering for the first time in 2024.14 So why not consider supporting organisations who address homelessness and rough sleeping?

With your help, these organisations can raise awareness and advocate for services that can improve the effectiveness of SWEP.

London’s Volunteer Centres

Volunteer Centres (VCs) are the ‘go to’ places for volunteering locally. In London, they are borough-based and usually work with local people and organisations. Visit the London Plus VC directory here: https://londonplus.org/cvs-and-volunteer-centres/volunteer-centres

London’s Lifelines

Volunteers in London have been this city’s Lifeline for such a long time and there are some quick and simple ways that you too can join them. Find out more information about how to volunteer in London here: https://londonslifelines.org/how-to-volunteer-in-london/

Volunteer directly with a charity or community group

If a particular charity or community group means something special to you, you can reach out to them directly online.

Useful Resources

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has set up a Weather Health Alerting system where you can sign up to receive alerts when weather conditions are likely to impact the health and well-being of the population. To use the UKHSA Weather Health Altering System, visit their website at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/weather-health-alerting-system.

StreetLink allows you to connect either yourself or other people sleeping rough to the local council and support services. To refer yourself or someone else sleeping rough, visit their website at https://thestreetlink.org.uk/

Get in touch

Penny Chamberlain

Researcher and Data Analyst

Email: penny@londonplus.org

Mobile: 07934 919 285

References

  1. Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) [Internet]. SPEAR London. 2022. Available from: https://www.spearlondon.org/severe-weather-emergency-protocol-swep/
  2. London Assembly. Guidance for winter Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) in Greater London 2023-24 [Internet]. london.gov.uk. 2023. Available from: https://www.london.gov.uk/programmes-strategies/housing-and-land/homelessness/what-mayor-doing-tackle-rough-sleeping?ac-27093=27083#acc-i-50612
  3. London Councils . Severe Weather Emergency Protocol Activity in Winter 2022/2023 – A London Councils briefing [Internet]. London Councils . 2023 Oct. Available from: https://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/node/40853
  4. Homeless Link – The National Practice Development Team. Winter Provision and SWEP Toolkit [Internet]. Homeless Link. 2023 Oct. Available from: https://homeless.org.uk/knowledge-hub/guidance-on-cold-weather-provision-swep-and-heatwaves/
  5. London Assembly. Pan-London SWEP activation procedure 2023-24 [Internet]. london.gov.uk. 2023. Available from: https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/2023-11/GLA%20SWEP%20activation%20procedure%202023-24.pdf
  6. REACT Disaster Response [Internet]. www.re-act.org.uk. 2024. Available from: https://www.re-act.org.uk/about/
  7. Homeless Link. Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) Frequently Asked Questions [Internet]. 2020 Feb. Available from: https://homelesslink-1b54.kxcdn.com/media/documents/Severe_Weather_Emergency_Protocol_FAQs_February_2020_9KRmXPP.pdf
  8. Crisis UK. Rough sleeping | Crisis UK | Together we will end homelessness [Internet]. Crisis. 2024. Available from: https://www.crisis.org.uk/ending-homelessness/rough-sleeping/#:~:text=Rough%20sleeping%20is%20one%20of
  9. Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN). CHAIN Annual Report Greater London April 2022 – March 2023 [Internet]. London Datastore. Greater London Authority; 2023 Jun. Available from: http://data.london.gov.uk
  10. Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN). CHAIN Annual Report Greater London April 2016 – March 2017 [Internet]. London Datastore. Greater London Authority; 2017 Jun. Available from: http://data.london.gov.uk
  11. Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Rough Sleeping Initiative: 2022 to 2025 updated funding allocations [Internet]. GOV.UK. 2023. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/rough-sleeping-initiative-2022-to-2025-updated-funding-allocations
  12. Centre Point. Is the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) failing homeless young people? [Internet]. Centrepoint. 2022. Available from: https://centrepoint.org.uk/research-reports/severe-weather-emergency-protocol-swep-failing-homeless-young-people
  13. The Museum of Homelessness. Dying Homeless Project Findings 2022 [Internet]. Museum of Homelessness . 2022. Available from: https://museumofhomelessness.org/dhp
  14. The National Lottery Community Fund . 2024: Community spirit shines in UK communities as they prepare for year ahead | The National Lottery Community Fund [Internet]. www.tnlcommunityfund.org.uk. 2024 [cited 2024]. Available from: https://www.tnlcommunityfund.org.uk/news/press-releases/2024-01-08/2024-community-spirit-shines-in-uk