Homelessness: Are severe weather policies working in London?

Severe Weather Emergency Protocols (SWEPs) are put in place in London to protect people experiencing homelessness during particularly poor weather conditions. 

Mayor Sadiq Khan activated the policy for the first time in 2024 on 8th January, when temperatures dropped to below zero degrees. 

The protocol is designed to ensure councils open additional emergency accommodation for people sleeping on the streets. 

All boroughs in London have committed to the In for Good principle, which the Mayor’s Office states means nobody will be asked to leave accommodation until a support plan is in place to end their rough sleeping. 

However, this solution to winter homelessness is not favoured by all people experiencing homelessness in London.

Greg Szymanski has been homeless since March 2023, sleeping on building sites and now in his car, and has asked Lambeth Council for accommodation support throughout the SWEP period. 

LET DOWN: Greg Szymanski has been asking for support from Lambeth Council since being made homeless last year.

As temperatures plummeted in November 2023, Greg woke up shaking with cold in the mornings, so approached the Mayor of Lambeth to ask if there was anywhere he could shower. 

He was sent to a housing advisor who said they could help with a deposit for a studio flat, but Greg has heard nothing since and continues to live in his car, whilst suffering with osteoarthritis and holding down a job as a handyman in the area. 

This January, Greg approached the council again regarding their SWEP policy, only to be told he could have another housing advice appointment – in February. 

Greg said: [The social media posts] are not for me, they are for people like you. 

“You have a house, a job, and good health. You will think Lambeth Council are amazing for doing these things, but this is not true.

“I didn’t ask for a villa with a swimming pool, I asked for a warm place and the possibility of showering.”

Lambeth Council did not respond to a request for comment. 

How useful are SWEP policies?

Matt Downie, Crisis Chief Executive, said: “Rough sleeping at any time of year is incredibly dangerous, but during the winter months it can be deadly. 

“No one should have to sleep on the streets at any time of year, yet rough sleeping is rising across the country – meaning thousands are at risk of being exposed to freezing temperatures that can damage their health.” 

Although the SWEP Policies are designed to ensure people sleeping on the streets are given a way to formulate an accommodation plan, it is viewed by some as essentially putting a plaster over a bullet wound. 

Downie explained: “Although it’s absolutely right that emergency winter night accommodation is available during brutally cold weather, this is only a temporary measure. 

“What we really need is for the Westminster Government to invest in long-term solutions such as building more social housing and providing specialist support services, so that people can stay off the streets for good.” 

What can you do to help? 

Downie said: “If you see someone sleeping rough, even something as simple as asking someone how they are or offering to buy them a hot drink can make a world of difference. 

“Homelessness can be an incredibly isolating experience so these moments are extremely important – striking up a conversation with someone can also mean you are able to get their permission to contact Streetlink on their behalf, which will connect them to homelessness services in their local area. ”   

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