Helping people inside from extreme weather

    Dan Olney, St Mungo’s Assistant Director of Pan London Street Homeless and Outreach Services, tells us about Severe Emergency Weather Protocol (SWEP), the emergency response to prevent homeless people from dying or developing serious health conditions in extreme weather.

    Sleeping rough is harmful and dangerous any time of year. Our outreach teams, and others across the country, go out early morning and late at night throughout the year to find people who are sleeping rough and to support them away from the streets.

    However, when there’s a “Beast from the East” or Storm Emma, it really can mean life-threatening temperatures for anyone who is street homeless.

    The Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) is an emergency response to prevent deaths of people sleeping rough during winter.

    SWEP is activated by local authorities across the country when temperatures are forecast to be lower than zero degrees for three nights, or in London for one night.

    St Mungo’s supports SWEP actions across London and the south and south west of England where our 17 outreach teams are based, working alongside other organisations and with a range of local authorities in Oxford, Bournemouth, Brighton, Reading, and Bristol for example.

    ‘An additional safety net’

    In London, we are also commissioned by the Greater London Authority to operate the ‘pan London SWEP’ provision. This essentially provides additional capacity emergency beds for people, when local borough provision is full. This acts as an additional safety net, if the temperatures drop for a sustained period – which they have over the last week. This is the longest period of sustained SWEP in seven years.

    We’ve not had a winter like this in many years and I’ve been overwhelmed by the support and response from the public, volunteers, partners and St Mungo’s staff. Across London, we currently have around 100 people in emergency shelters who would otherwise have been sleeping out in freezing temperatures. We’ve made around 150 bedspaces available – and yes, welcomed in dogs as well as people as much as possible, and worked in partnership with dogs’ homes and other charities to offer kennelling or other options so that having a dog wasn’t a barrier to the person coming in. We’ve even had a cat in as well!

    When people come in, it’s not luxury but it is warm, there are hot drinks, the chance for a wash and a chat with people. We also use the opportunity to talk to people about their situation and see how we could help people to move away from the streets for good, not just while the weather is extreme. The extreme cold has meant some people have been persuaded to come inside and have those conversations when perhaps they were reluctant previously.

    We are continuing to run SWEP shelters over this weekend, and outreach workers continue to check and follow up referrals for anyone still out, for whatever reason. And rest assured, our outreach work won’t end when the weather improves. Teams will still be out, night and day, helping people with the first steps to rebuilding their lives.

    What can you do to help?

    • Refer someone you are concerned about to local support through the StreetLink website or app
    • Contact your local homelessness organisation and see what kind of practical help they need.
    • Give – either your time, or your donations. For example, in London, the London Homeless Charities Group has set up a coalition of 18 charities, and a No One Needs to Sleep Rough campaign, supported by the Mayor which is coordinating donations.

    Recovery College helped me re-find my identity

    Jaq (not her real name) tells us in her own words how St Mungo’s Recovery College helped to transform her life and find her passion for art. She also found the courage to leave a life of alcohol and drug dependency behind her.

    My way of hurting them back

    My addiction started in school. I was 10 years old when I started drinking. I drank because I was bullied at home and at school. There were a lot of problems at home. My dad was an alcoholic and I guess I copied him. It was what I knew. I used to steal from him and my family. It was my way of hurting them back.

    I drank alcohol for three years. Then I met some dealers and was introduced to cannabis, amphetamines and any party drug going.

    I have been homeless four times in my life. The first time was when I was 16. I was living in a hostel because my mum couldn’t handle me. My dad didn’t want to know. I had some trouble with one of the other residents and I ended up sleeping rough for a couple of weeks.

    I had my own flat after that, but I was burgled. I was petrified. They took everything. I didn’t feel safe. I took to the streets again for a number of months and lost the tenancy.

    I was offered a place in a women’s hostel, and after some time I was offered another flat. I stayed there for eight years and it was a really lovely place. My own home. But I started mixing with the wrong people and my drink and drug taking increased, my mental health deteriorated.I ended up back on the streets. This time for nearly nine months.

    By the time I was rehoused in the women’s hostel again, my mental and physical health was on the floor. Throughout this cycle, I had always managed to work, but this time I couldn’t.

    I found Myself

    Through the support at the hostel, I met Maddy. She introduced me to the  St Mungo’s Recovery College and I have never left. I came back every day. I just wanted to learn and stop using. It didn’t take me long once I found Martin’s Café Art. I found myself.

    I was around people who weren’t using for the first time. The staff allowed me to grow. I took part in the Bridge the Gap course and I had a mentor for nearly a year. Throughout our year working together I had some ups and downs, it was great to know he was there for me the whole time. Within the first few months I realised I had more control over my life than ever before. Since then my confidence and self-belief has grown and I’m now volunteering with the New Street women’s group and have attended training to start my own art group.

    Recovery College gave me trust in myself and the time to understand who I am. It has given me confidence to take a part in art exhibitions and work with new people. I have been clean for two years now. I would love to study art therapy and give people what St Mungo’s has given me.

    The St Mungo’s Recovery College is a pioneering, inclusive learning programme, based on the principle that learning can be a transformative experience. All activities at our College are underpinned by our recovery service ethos.

    The Recovery College learning experience is based on principles of co-production. Courses are designed, delivered and attended by St Mungo’s clients, staff and volunteers, and they are also open to the general public. All our courses are free and run by volunteers.

    St Mungo’s relies on the generosity of the public to run projects like The Recovery College. You can find more information on how to get involved in supporting us on our website.


    On a typical day…

    “For me, if I can go home knowing I have helped at least one person away from the streets, or just one person away from the distress of mental health illness, I feel blessed.” St Mungo’s Mental Health Practitioner, Fatima, shares her experience of working in Outreach, helping people sleeping rough in the Tower Hamlets area.

    I’ve been a mental health nurse for 18 years. In 2011, I became and an approved mental health professional, which incorporates social work. I will work typical outreach shift in terms of going out early in the mornings and staying out late in the evening, as late as two or three in the morning, speaking to clients who are sleeping rough to try to form therapeutic relationships with them to help them move away from a life on the streets.

    ‘Blinded to homelessness’

    I was one of those people who was blinded to homelessness. I could walk past a homeless person or rough sleeper and not really see them to understand what they’re going through. It’s been an eye opener for me and I’ve fortunately been able to influence others to see homelessness through what I do at St Mungo’s.

    It can take a week or months to be build a relationship with a person. Sometimes they are in denial – they have no insight about what is happening to them so I try and to slowly educate them. I take decisions out of people’s hands when they’re experiencing mental distress.

    I enjoy my work. I can get people registered with a GP surgery, then get them to start medication, stabilise their mental health illness and then help into accommodation whilst we support them. Many people may have been de-registered and have been turned away from Accident and Emergency (A&E) wards. They can go through those revolving doors three or four times a month, back and forth from A&E.

    I also work with the clients to ensure they engage with the process of recovering from homelessness. You cannot take someone off the streets and expect them to turn up for every appointment. I have to build that relationship, that rapport and that routine of them coming to see me to talk about their mental health, the medication and the side effects.

    ‘Long days full of drama’

    My days can be very long and full of drama. Sometimes I get abused, which can be quite stressful. But my job is also fun and flexible. For me, if I can go home knowing I have helped at least one person away from the streets, or just one person away from the distress of mental health illness, I feel blessed.

    It’s brilliant to see someone who has been sleeping on the streets for five or six years leave that life behind. The kerb becomes their family so getting them into accommodation is not easy. When you put them in a room in a hostel it can be very lonely. The silence can be deafening for them because people out on the streets give them money and say hello – some people get to know them as they walk past them on their commutes. So they run back onto the street and people wonder why because they have accommodation.

    ‘Everybody is unique, everybody has a journey.’

    A lot of clients can lose their accommodation in hostels because of poor mental health – some people cannot understand their journey. Everybody is unique, everybody has a journey. How you hold their hands to support that journey is what makes a difference. People might think, ‘go to housing and get a property, get off the road and get your benefits’, it’s a much longer journey, however.

    Different clients talk about their living conditions. Finances are a problem. People have not been used to managing money and paying bills. Universal Credit has also caused a lot of problems for our clients.

    I have one client, for example, who believes he has all his money invested in stocks and shares. He says when his investments mature, he’ll pay his rent. He has a diagnosis of schizophrenia with delusional disorder. I ask for my colleagues to work with him in terms of hand-holding to ensure he does not get evicted from his hostel.

    I’m working with this lady that I’ve known since I was a student nurse. Up to now she will not allow anyone else to work with her. She was sleeping in a bin shed. She became mentally unwell, and started using drugs to self-medicate the voices she was hearing. Her children were taken into foster care when they were young. I worked with her and got her a place in a hostel. He son got in touch after 15 years and they’re building a relationship again.

    ‘You cannot be judgemental’

    Because of the nature of the people we work with, many with chaotic life styles, who are extremely marginalised, it’s very difficult to get through to the NHS. Even though I am that link between the NHS and homelessness services. Sometimes the nurses have no understanding or knowledge of homelessness. They’ll say, ‘he needs to go, he might bring drugs in here’. It’s a big challenge to get my clients treatment because of the way they look, or dress and their circumstances.

    Working in outreach, you cannot be lazy. I have gotten used walking everywhere. You must be able to multitask as you’re dealing with more than one client, sometimes up to seven a day, who are in crisis. I’ve jumped over six feet walls and walked along canals to help people – it’s part of what we do. You must have people skills, respect humanity, and you cannot be judgemental at all. It takes a lot of character to try and support people who are not ready to receive help.

    It’s a nice feeling to know you’ve helped someone from being a hermit to re-engage back into society and to be part of a community. I think that’s what has been missing in [conversations about] homelessness. Our country has forgotten how to be a community. To me, it feels like in London everyone is in a rush, so in that mad rush, we are blinded to homelessness.

    StreetLink helps people sleeping rough off the streets

    In 2015-16, the StreetLink referral line received in excess of 60,000 calls and web reports from people concerned about people sleeping rough. This resulted in 20,374 referrals of people sleeping rough to outreach teams across England. Matt Taylor, StreetLink’s Team Leader, explains how the service works.

    StreetLink is a national referral website service that enables the public to alert local authorities in England and Wales about people sleeping rough in an area. The service is run in partnership between St Mungo’s and Homeless Link, and funded by grants from the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Greater London Authority and the Welsh Government.

    Here’s how it works in more detail.

    Making a referral

    Each day and night, a central team of around eight people, including four volunteers, answer calls and follow up website referrals from the public. In peak times, StreetLink can receive as many as 700 alerts per day.

    When a referral is received, the information is sent by email to either the appropriate local authority or the outreach team in that area to action.Many local authorities have outreach teams, these are not managed by StreetLink, but by separate organisations – these go out to look for people in the locations given at night.

    Outreach workers report back with an ‘outcome’ within 10 working days. If requested, Streetlink will send an update to the person who made the referral.

    Our volunteers

    The service relies on volunteers to help run it. They come from all kinds of backgrounds, and some have experienced homelessness themselves. In the words of a current volunteer: “It’s great to be part of a service that you know works, and which for many is the first step in helping people off the streets”.

    What StreetLink cannot do

    StreetLink is not an emergency service. Although local authorities and outreach teams aim to act on referrals as soon as they can, response times vary from area to area, depending on the resources available, but 2-3 nights is probably average.

    Several areas do not have dedicated independent outreach teams. Where this is the case, they send the referral to the council’s Housing Options team and ask them to follow up.


    High levels of calls mean that sometimes StreetLink does not have the capacity to answer immediately. That’s why they ask you to use their website or app for referrals whenever possible.

    To make sure rough sleepers can be found by the outreach teams, the StreetLink team need to know the exact location that people have been seen sleeping. For example, “I saw someone sleeping in XX Park. Enter the park via XX Road. Ten yards in is a toilet block. They are in a bush directly behind that block”.

    In addition, StreetLink will always take the following into consideration:

    Time – outreach teams go out at night or in the early hours of the morning. If the rough sleeper is not seen by the referrer during these times it is unlikely that the team will be able to locate them.
    Activity – Unfortunately, outreach teams cannot verify someone as rough sleeping if they are begging, and not actually bedded down.
    Location – from experience, exposed locations such as famous landmarks, ATM machines and busy pedestrian streets are not typically where people will actually sleep.

    The end result

    StreetLink works. Since December 2012, around 25,000 people have been connected to local services and over 4,000 have been found accommodation as a direct result of their referral to StreetLink.

    Thank you to all who have used StreetLink or downloaded the app. Spread the word, and if you’re in London and can commit to four hours a fortnight and, please do consider volunteering for the service.

Go back