For many of us, the UK’s latest cold snap – dubbed the Beast from the East – is an inconvenience of travel delays, school cancellations and slippery roads. But for those sleeping rough, even one night of sub-zero temperatures can be fatal.
This Valentine’s Day, a homeless man was found dead in the morning in an underpass at Westminster Tube station just opposite the Houses of Parliament after temperatures had dropped below freezing the night before.
During the holiday period, when families were out doing their Christmas shopping, a man sleeping rough outside a shopping centre in Birmingham died after a night when temperatures dropped to -1C.
And just last week, Rob O’Connor of Chelmsford died in front of a shop door after a night of sub-zero weather. Although he had been suffering from health problems before – he had just undergone surgery for cancer – a friend who was also sleeping rough said the streets had been bitterly cold in the last few days.
“I was devastated when I heard the news,” O’Connor’s friend Ross Miller told the BBC. “He could be a pain, but he was all right. He was a nice bloke.
“I wish I had somewhere to go,” he added, highlighting the cold weather. “I don’t like sitting here, I really don’t.”
In response to the latest period of cold weather, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has opened emergency shelters to ensure those sleeping rough have somewhere warm to sleep – an intervention that could save hundreds of lives.
Across the UK, local authorities can decide to activate similar special Severe Weather Protocol measures which enable them to provide emergency shelter for rough sleepers.
Whether through charities, local authorities or both, helping rough sleepers during a cold snap is heavily dependent on support from members of the public.
In England and Wales, people can get in touch with the national referral service StreetLink, which is funded by other charities such as St. Mungo’s. You can provide details of people you encounter sleeping rough so volunteer groups on nightly patrols can make contact with them and link them up with emergency accommodation and other local services.
Local branches of Unite Community have spearheaded multiple campaigns in support of rough sleepers. Recently, Unite Community protested Gloucester, a Tory council, when it put up posters demonising homeless people.
Other groups have knitted gloves and scarves for rough sleepers during the winter, and many Unite Community members take an active role in supporting the homeless through, for example, volunteering at soup kitchens.
Unite Community co-ordinator Liane Groves told UNITElive that rough sleeping is a scourge that is the direct result of austerity.
“The massive surge in rough sleeping did not arrive by accident – it’s increased in lockstep with specific government policies such as changes to the benefits system; revoking housing benefit for under-25s; and changes to Universal Credit.
“The lack of provision at shelters mean that at some hostels – where violence and drugs are prevalent – many who are homeless feel unsafe and would rather risk it on the streets.
“While we welcome the great work that charities do, the gaps in the system cannot be funded by charities alone. State-backed provision – a properly funded social safety net – needs to be in place to stop people falling through the cracks and sleeping rough.”
Find out more about how you can get involved with Unite Community and its campaigns in support of the homeless here.