The forecast of snow can bring with it excitement for those who can watch it gently fall from the refuge of their heated rooms. But for rough sleepers in Oxford, the frigid temperatures that come with it can be life-threatening. Oxford City Council has implemented its severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP) for tonight and last night to provide extra help to rough sleepers. Under SWEP, the council provides beds to anyone without a place to sleep, no matter if they have a local connection to Oxford or qualify for benefits in the UK.

Rough sleepers can be allocated a spot in one of Oxford’s four homeless shelters providing extra support during the winter months. One of these is at Floyds Row, which opened this January with 56 beds near Christ Church in the heart of Oxford. There are two further SWEP shelters in central Oxford: O’Hanlon House is near Folly Bridge and Simon House is near Westgate. The fourth shelter is in East Oxford. Additionally, Oxfordshire County Council has arranged a pooled budget of £846,600 to provide 106 further beds across Oxfordshire by 2021.

Councillor Linda Smith, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Leisure and Housing, said: “We’re using our discretion and are extending the activation of SWEP and the opening of emergency beds because the Met Office is continuing to forecast a sub-zero ‘feels like’ temperature tonight. We will review the situation tomorrow morning, however based on the current forecast, temperatures are expected to rise.”

SWEP is activated whenever temperatures feel or are below freezing. Previously, the council would only activate the emergency bed protocol when the Met Office reported temperatures of zero degrees or below for three consecutive nights. Hypothermia can set in at four degrees, especially if it is raining or one is wearing wet clothes. When the temperatures dip below freezing, the risk increases quickly, and rough sleepers are the most vulnerable. Deaths of homeless people escalate during the winter months. In the winter of 2016-2017, the most recent figures, there were a reported 222 deaths in England and Wales.

A report released on Wednesday announced that rough sleeping in Oxfordshire has fallen by 30%, from 119 to 83 people since the last estimate in 2018. In Oxford itself, the number of rough sleepers has fallen from 94 to 62 in the same time period. Oxford City Council administers street counts every two months and estimates for the county are based off of data from local councils, outreach teams, and other partners. Despite reductions in total numbers in Oxford, the UK is struggling to meet its goals in reducing homelessness.

Layla Moran, Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, criticised the lack of effort behind the Conservative plan to eliminate rough sleeping by 2024. With an estimated 4,677 rough sleepers in England, the plan would have to ensure 780 people a year find stable housing solutions. Moran said that in order to reduce the number of rough sleepers while maintaining their dignity, “We need actions, not just words (from the current government).

“The Conservatives must implement a more compassionate and holistic approach, if they are to get any closer to their goal. That starts with scrapping the Vagrancy Act, a Dickensian law that criminalises rough sleeping in England and Wales. The answer to ending rough sleeping is not to arrest those doing it.”

If you’re concerned about somebody sleeping rough or see someone on the street tonight, contact OxSPOT on 01865 243229 or email [email protected].