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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Cold comfort

May 20 2009
Met Office warnings of severe weather will prevent loss of life Relief workers in Westminster are to receive a daily email from the Met office to warn of approaching cold weather. The information will act as a trigger for the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) during which time local authorities, police and hostel workers aim to get rough sleepers off the streets in Westminster, the first area to introduce this in the UK. The email will contain temperature forecasts, and should this predict three or more consecutive days of zero degrees Centigrade or below, a SWEP will be activated in order to reduce illness or loss of life caused by the extreme cold. Building Based Services (BBS) coordinator Nik Ward said the email had been introduced to improve on previous winters, where there was a lack of clarity around when the SWEP was triggered. "The email arrives with key managers across Westminster between 7am and 10am every morning," Mr Ward explained. "Once the SWEP has been triggered, I will phone round to confirm that all the services are able to accommodate the nominated individuals, and each of the three services will set about trying to get the people who are in their patch into the provision." Currently, the provision stands at 35 additional hostel spaces, which may be increased should sub-zero temperatures continue for a prolonged period. It is the responsibility of the various hostel workers to review a list of rough sleepers at least once every fortnight and make note of those who may be particularly vulnerable in freezing conditions. Those who have only been on the streets a short time are considered less at risk, as they are generally in better health. "Most of this targeted work will take place on the streets at night and we will aim to have teams out on the streets on every night that a SWEP is enacted," added Mr Ward. The shelters work closely with local police, and Malcolm Barnard, Inspector for the Homeless Unit in the City of Westminster, is also involved in the SWEP. "I forward directions to all my police colleagues in Westminster informing them of the scheme and the existence of places available and we then patrol the streets and encourage rough sleepers to take up the opportunity to come inside," said Inspector Barnard, "although it is my experience that many rough sleepers decline the offer." Like Mr Ward, Inspector Barnard's main intention is to prevent the loss of life. "It is a measure of the success of this project that there have not been any deaths on the streets over recent years," he said. However, Mr Ward felt there was room for improvement. "It is difficult to know if we got every single vulnerable person in on the coldest nights over the past few years," he said. "Although we have had no deaths directly attributed to the cold weather, we know that long-term rough sleepers have got a reduced life expectancy, and cold weather must play a part in that." Although Westminster Council does not currently subscribe to SWEP warnings, they are monitoring the scheme's progress. Mr Ward said he suspected that most local authorities would develop their own SWEPs as part of their homelessness strategies if the numbers of rough sleepers increase. For now, he urged those concerned about those sleeping out this winter to make them and hostel workers aware of the scheme. "If anyone comes across an individual who they are particularly concerned about, and they think the BBS teams are not aware of them, then please speak to their hostel or local day centre to get a referral made to the relevant BBS team so we can target them," said Mr Ward.