Why the cold weather feels a little bit different this year

Petra Salva, St Mungo’s Director of Rough Sleeping, Westminster and Migrant Services, explains why our services ramp up as temperatures drop. And why Covid-19 is making things a little different this year.

I’ve dedicated my whole working life to supporting people out of rough sleeping and homelessness. Over the last 20 years or so, I thought I had seen everything in terms of the impact rough sleeping can have on a person and their families.  I’ve seen the harm, the hurt and the pain that people experience, and then came the Covid-19 pandemic.

All of a sudden, the physical and mental vulnerabilities people already experience whilst sleeping rough came into even sharper focus and became a greater emergency.

Just imagine what it must feel like, sleeping on a pavement, in the dark, alone, fearing for your safety, maybe taking drugs or drinking, just to numb the pain of your situation, feeling physically unwell because of the toll of this lifestyle or because you have another physical problem that has gone untreated or not even yet diagnosed .

Then you are faced with the fear of a pandemic, a virus that if caught by you, is likely to make you even more vulnerable and possibly kill you.

I, and colleagues and volunteers across our organisation,  have had the privilege of helping to house and support hundreds of people since the start of the pandemic to try to address all these risks, but despite our best efforts and that of many charities and local authorities, we have not been able to house everyone, so tonight, too many people are still faced with the grim reality of sleeping rough.

And now comes the winter and the cold.

Sleeping rough is dangerous at any time of the year but when the cold strikes, it is even more deadly. Cold weather can, and does, kill.

On top of that, we know many people who rough sleep already have underlying health conditions, so the risk of Covid-19 makes it even more vital that our clients have access to safe accommodation which will protect them from not just the weather, but from contracting the virus as well.

There is no doubt, this year will probably be the most challenging that I and our outreach teams have ever experienced but, that won’t stop us from working around the clock to try to save lives by bringing people in from the cold and supporting them when they need us the most.

The Severe Weather Response, also known as ‘Severe Weather Emergency Protocol’ (SWEP) is triggered when the Met Office forecasts freezing temperatures.

This can vary from region to region. In London, it is called if it’s going to be zero degrees or below for one night. In our regional areas, it will be activated if zero degrees is forecast three nights in a row, except for in Brighton where our commissioners use a “feels like” temperature.

In previous years, when local authorities have informed us that our severe weather response is needed, we have provided emergency shelter in the form of communal spaces.

This year however, we will not be able to provide this type of accommodation. Our clients must be able to sleep somewhere which also allows them to self-isolate, away from others so that they are not at increased risk of contracting Covid-19, but this doesn’t mean we won’t be helping people this year. Instead, we have found new ways to keep our clients safe this winter.

Our teams have been as agile, adaptable and creative as they always are – seeking out every possible option which can be used to provide much needed accommodation – cleaning rooms previously used for storage, converting meeting rooms to bedrooms – resourcefully adapting as many spaces as we can. As well as working with local councils to find other suitable places.

Protecting people from the elements is just the beginning for us. Because I know that providing somewhere warm and safe to stay is just the first step.

Often, when it’s really cold, we have a valuable opportunity to engage with people who, under normal circumstances, might be reluctant to come indoors. So our teams are committed to trying their very best to ensure every person brought inside never has to go back to sleeping outside again.

They go above and beyond to help people with their future plans, including reconnecting them with family and loved ones, providing permanent housing and linking them to health services, as well as assisting with benefit and employment support.

Like I said at the very beginning, I have seen first-hand the harm and pain that rough sleeping causes people, but I have also seen how, with the right help and support people can and do recover from homelessness.

The reason I am still here fighting is because I have hope and belief that mass rough sleeping really can be a thing of the past.

Anyone concerned about someone sleeping rough should contact StreetLink via their website or app. Alerts will be passed on to the local outreach service or council who will attempt to find them and offer support within 48 hours of being contacted. StreetLink is not an emergency service. If anyone is in need of urgent medical attention, please call 999.