Our severe weather response will save lives

Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) is triggered when the Met Office forecasts freezing temperatures. This trigger can vary from region to region, for example in London it’s zero degrees or below forecast for one night, in Brighton, our commissioners use a “feels like” temperature. Most boroughs will activate SWEP when it’s a three night zero forecast. Due to the pandemic SWEP will be different this year. Here Wendy Dodds, Outreach Coordinator in Reading shines a light on what this means and what’s been happening on her streets.

Photo of Wendy Dodds, Reading Outreach

I have worked in outreach for sixteen and a half years. In that time I have seen many system changes but the heart breaking circumstances for people remain devastating.

St Mungo’s were first commissioned to run the outreach service in Reading on 1 January 2008 and we have managed it ever since. We took it over from an organisation called Crime Reduction Initiative, where I had been working since April 2004 and when St Mungo’s took over I moved to be on the team.

The past context and why SWEP is important

The homeless picture was very different then, we didn’t have a homeless pathway and it very much depended on our relationship with housing providers to enable a client to access accommodation. This saw an imbalance in service provision and often people with the most complex needs suffered the most. People were more willing to accept a person with low support needs into their accommodation. We saw people who were more entrenched in rough sleeping because there was no pathway for them, yet some people new to rough sleeping were picked up quickly while others remained on the streets for years. It’s shocking to reflect back and I’m glad that has changed.

We didn’t have a Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) back then either. SWEP was introduced as a life-saving initiative by central government. I have a love hate relationship with SWEP, I love that we get more people in and treated as a priority but it adds a lot more pressure to an already pressurised team.

Some people still refuse help and it happens a lot, mainly because people do not want to share accommodation – especially if a person had experienced trauma there can be a lot of triggers sleeping in a noisy environment where people are wrestling with all kinds of issues, people often say they don’t feel safe and would prefer to sleep alone on the street. The worry never leaves you, I get frustrated and I make sure people know they are at risk of death, you have to be blunt sometimes – there’s no point dressing it up SWEP is lifesaving and there is no doubt cold kills. In Reading we have people refuse to come inside, people who will accept our help and people who are sofa-surfing booking a space in the hope they will be escalated through the pathway into housing. It’s a tough call, as all are vulnerable but SWEP is emergency provision to save lives. If I give you an example on one night during SWEP last year we had 14 people stay and 9 were sofa surfing.

During the pandemic

So with the Covid-19 pandemic and our policy to offer everyone a room of their own in a local B&B will bring a new SWEP. I will be really interested to see what the landscape is like this year. It’s going to be very interesting. The barrier to shared accommodations has been removed so I’m hoping we will be able to help people who tend to refuse support.

This year has been a difficult year with constant changes to our service provision to adapt to Covid-19 restrictions.

The highlights of my job and what drive me

Housing First! In Reading we received funding for a Housing First Outreach worker through a philanthropist. I am a huge believer in housing first and I would love to see it expand across the UK. Seeing the progress people make has been inspirational. It makes me proud to have played a small part in it. Watching a client on their road to recovery and bumping into them on the high street and seeing the difference… it makes me so proud even when they are not my client.

It’s a massive privilege to do a job I really love. These are people that have fallen through every single safety net in society. We should be the ones that feel privileged that they even engage with us. We need to look at the barriers to why people don’t want to engage. Housing is a right, it shouldn’t be deserved, and it is disgusting. People shouldn’t have to be on the streets but unfortunately they are. If I came in to work tomorrow and was told I had no job because we had solved homelessness – I would skip all the way home.

Cold weather can kill. Our clients are at greater risk due to underlying health conditions and the year round dangers of sleeping rough. But in extreme cold, these challenges are brought into sharp focus for our clients, for our staff and for our partners and supporters.

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 cold weather hits, alongside the support they need to recover and rebuild their lives. Find out more how you can help here.

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