The climate crisis brought more prolonged spells of sub-zero temperatures in London this winter and it pushed homelessness support services to the limit. Image: Orva Studio / Unsplash
Councils in London have warned the climate crisis is making it more difficult to find the resources to protect rough sleepers from extreme weather.
The Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (Swep) sees local authorities work with frontline homelessness teams to bring homeless people off the streets when weather conditions pose a threat to life.
Climate change means conditions like extreme heat or cold, flooding or even high winds are becoming more frequent. Cllr Darren Rodwell, London Councils’ executive member for regeneration, housing and planning, said that is putting strain on support services that do not receive any dedicated government funding to provide Swep.
“In the face of increasingly severe weather, this work genuinely saves lives,” said Rodwell.
“This winter was extremely challenging but climate change means we must prepare for these pressures to become ‘business as usual’. It is more important than ever to make sure frontline services have the resources they need, especially if we are to help rough sleepers brought inside during severe weather to stay off the streets for good.”
While in recent years the protocol would usually be activated for one- or two-day periods, extreme measures were in place for 10 days on two occasions during the winter to deal with sub-zero temperatures. That made it the worst winter since the protocol was agreed in 2018, according to London Councils.
The longer periods of extreme weather have taken a toll.
Accommodation shortages were so extreme that councils’ resilience teams were required to step in to help homelessness staff and volunteers set up rest centres across London.
Councils rely on temporary accommodation such as private rented housing or hotels to house rough sleepers during Swep. But this year shortages meant authorities were forced to set up camp beds at sports centres, old town halls and other council-owned buildings.
London Councils warned that local authorities’ homelessness and rough sleeping budgets are already under intense pressure and called for Swep to receive government funding to make it sustainable in the future as the climate crisis worsens.
A spokesperson for the Mayor of London said: “The Mayor has been warning about the impact of the climate crisis on London and is taking world-leading action to reduce carbon emissions in our city. He is also working in partnership with councils and charities to develop more robust protocols around supporting rough sleepers during extreme weather conditions.”
Swep is not only activated in London; councils across England and Wales also act to protect rough sleepers in extreme weather.
Moh tracked 91 local authorities over two years to see how many times the protocol was activated and found more than a quarter of councils did not activate Swep or could not provide information on responses to extreme weather.
The grassroots group also found only 53% of councils had put in place measures to respond to extreme heat despite record-breaking temperatures in England in 2022.
Meanwhile, not a single local authority had put measures in place for extreme rain or flash flooding.
Matt Turtle, Moh co-founder, said: “Our nine-month investigation into Swep across England and Wales shows that now is the time to do more, not less.
“Currently central government does not recognise Swep in its code of guidance or provide any funding. Swep is patchily implemented across the UK and in London we still do not have a summer protocol.
“Climate change isn’t going away and we need urgent action and a proper response to safeguard people and save lives during extreme weather.”
A government spokesperson said councils can use funding from the Rough Sleeping Initiative to fund Swep.
“Councils deliver lifesaving support to get people off the streets, including through the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol,” the spokesperson said.
“Our Rough Sleeping Initiative supports that work by providing councils and their partners £500 million, which can be used to provide a range of accommodation and support, as we work together to end rough sleeping for good.”
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