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How can I help homeless people during a UK heatwave?

With temperatures set to hit a record high, people sleeping on the streets are at risk of dehydration and sunstroke. Here’s how you can help.

The nation is sweating through a UK heatwave and the heat poses a particular danger for people experiencing homelessness with no shelter to get out of the sun.

While it’s widely understood that low temperatures in winter put the wellbeing of people experiencing homelessness at risk, it’s also true that particularly warm summers — which we can expect more of as the climate crisis worsens — can be harmful for people sleeping rough.

They’re faced with a battle to find cool spots to shelter in, cold drinking water and places to shower off, while being at higher risk of sunburn, dehydration and heatstroke.

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Temperatures are set to soar in parts of England and Wales over the next few days with the south-east of England likely to see 34C heat on Friday. The UK Health Security Agency has declared a ‘level two alert’ over the soaring temperatures which follow hot air spreading from Spain, Portugal and north Africa.

Homelessness charity St Mungo’s has issued a warning over the risk to people who are sleeping rough.

The charity’s outreach team will be increasing the number of routine shifts on the streets to offer shelter to people outside in the sun.

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Petra Salva, director of rough sleeper, Westminster and migrant services at St Mungo’s, said: “Sleeping rough is always harmful and dangerous, but in particular when there are extreme changes to the weather like this week where we expect days of soaring temperatures. 

 “This heat can be life-threatening, especially whilst the temperatures remain high for prolonged periods. The heat can cause a number of severe health illnesses such as; heat cramps, heat rash, heat oedema, heat syncope, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.”

Here are some tips for those unsure how to help someone sleeping rough in high temperatures.

Ask your local council if they will activate Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP)

When extreme weather poses a health risk, councils can activate Severe Weather Emergency Protocols.

These can be activated in response to high winds, freezing temperatures and snow as well as extreme heat. It’s up to the council whether they decide to activate SWEP and while most local authorities are likely to open up places to shelter and reach out to rough sleepers under SWEP it is voluntary.

If you believe your council should be activating SWEP, you can contact them to let them know.

In response to this week’s heatwave, several local councils across the south of England, with support from St Mungo’s and other homelessness charities, may activate SWEP.

Salva added: “St Mungo’s is joining other charities in working with local authority partners to ensure that more accommodation is available, and safe spaces in existing services are turned into emergency shelters, to offer people a roof over their head.”

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Donate some sun cream

A simple way to help a disadvantaged person through the summer months is to give them a bottle of sun cream, whether it’s newly bought or a spare you had at home (as long as you haven’t had it for long – sunscreen can expire). 

Give out frozen water bottles

It can sometimes be tricky for people sleeping rough to locate good drinking water, and it becomes even more of a challenge in summer when they need to cool down and stay hydrated. If you plan to give away a bottle of water, stick it in the freezer the night before, so it will stay cold for longer and can also cool sticky foreheads. Even better, find out where your nearest water refill stations are and make sure the person has that information going forward.

If you give a person food, opt for ingredients which contain a lot of water such as juicy fruit or vegetables to help them stay hydrated.

Be generous with hats and sunglasses

It’s easy to underestimate the health-saving impact of sun hats and shades during the summer if we need only reach into a wardrobe to fish some out. But they can make a real difference in fending off sun and heatstroke, particularly to people who might not be able to escape the hot sun in a UK heatwave. 

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Donate a fan

A handheld fan can be a gamechanger for someone who can’t head indoors out of the sun or into air-conditioned buildings during a UK heatwave. Umbrellas can offer a person shade if they have nowhere else to go, too. 

Contact the local support team

If you see someone in need of medical attention in hot weather, don’t hesitate to call 999 to get them the help they need. Other expert organisations can offer support to those left without a home, including Streetlink — who will be sure to put you in touch with your local frontline services — Centrepoint, St Mungos, Crisis, Shelter and more.

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