Rough Sleepers Will Die This Winter Without Government Action

rough sleeper sleeping in snow

As winter approaches and temperatures plunge across the United Kingdom, staying warm and indoors isn’t always an option for the nation’s homeless populations. Hypothermia can affect people in temperatures as high as 15.5 degrees Celsius, or 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This is especially true if they aren’t wearing appropriate clothes to keep them warm.

The combination of COVID-19 and cold weather creates a devastating double threat. As a result, doctors and campaigners have warned that rough sleepers in the UK face death without urgent action.

Many rough sleepers are faced with the decision between staying outside in the cold or moving into shelters where the risk of contracting COVID-19 may be high.

In March, the UK government implemented an extremely successful “everyone in” policy. Up to 15,000 rough sleepers were given immediate emergency accommodation. These accommodations included hotel rooms where homeless people could safely practice social distancing and isolation. According to one study, this action saved an estimated 266 from death.

Many charities and campaigners argue for a repeat of this policy to save vulnerable rough sleepers from the plummeting temperatures and increased threat of COVID-19. However, the government has announced other plans for helping homeless people this winter.

Urgent Action Is Required

Self-contained accommodation for homeless people is essential this winter. A study from New York shows that the risk of dying from coronavirus for people living in communal homeless shelters was 61% higher than for the wider population.

Another study of homelessness in London showed the levels of the frailty of rough sleepers are comparable to 89-year-olds in the general population. This shows just how vulnerable homeless people are when it comes to contracting COVID-19 during the winter months.

These predictions of deaths among rough sleepers with nowhere safe to stay are an urgent wake-up call to the government. It isn’t right that hundreds or even thousands of rough sleepers must live in cramped and crowded conditions, where proper social distancing is near impossible.

What Accommodation Options are the UK Government Proposing?

The good news is that the UK government has made it clear that if night shelters are used, they must be upgraded to follow strict guidelines to reduce the chances of infection from COVID-19. When used as a shared space, shelters are now offered as a “last resort.”

Local authorities have suggested the following types of accommodation for housing homeless people this winter:

  • Bed and breakfasts, hotels, and hostels
  • Units funded through Next Steps Accommodation Programme (NSAP)
  • Hostels and supported accommodation including “crash pads”
  • Emergency provisions
  • Self-contained temporary accommodations
  • Unoccupied council buildings
  • Council-owned self-contained units
  • Student accommodation
  • Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs)
  • Night stops for 16- to 24-year-olds
  • Emergency pods

The government made a funding announcement on October 13 about the £12 million available to local authorities and shelter providers to enable self-contained accommodation.

Other funding has been made available so that it isn’t a binary choice between sleeping on the street or in a cramped hostel. Currently, 274 councils are set to receive housing support for vulnerable people for short-term or interim funding. For long-term plans, funding has been allocated for 3,300 new homes for rough sleepers.

Finally, and most recently, on November 5th, the government announced another £15 million of funding due to the second lockdown in England. A Protect Programme has been launched to protect vulnerable homeless people during the lockdown restrictions and the cold winter weather.

Areas with high numbers of homeless people will receive extra targeted support and assistance to provide accommodation for those sleeping rough. The Protect Programme will work with councils to prioritize clinically vulnerable populations through March 2021.

The Effects of Cold Weather on Homeless People

It comes as no surprise that winter conditions aren’t favorable for homeless people. As temperatures plummet and winds pick up speed, those forced to live outdoors must fear what the cold weather brings.

Many homeless people struggle to find blankets, coats, and other warm clothing items to keep warm in freezing temperatures. Without suitable warm clothing, the risk of hypothermia is even higher.

In addition to hypothermia, rough sleepers living outdoors in the winter can develop uncontrollable shivers, frostbite, and more. It doesn’t take long for hypothermia and frostbite to set in.

Nobody deserves to live in these conditions, especially during a pandemic. But for many men, women, and children in the UK and beyond, there is no other option.

Those facing homelessness are also more likely to develop or have specific mental health problems worsen.

How to Help Homeless People During the Winter

If you spot a homeless person living on the streets this winter, there are ways you can help them.

For those in the UK, the best thing to do is to contact StreetLink so that rough sleepers can be helped off the streets quickly. The details you provide are sent to the local authority or outreach service for the area you’ve spotted someone to help them find the person and connect them to safe support.

Wherever you are, consider creating care packages and keeping them in your care so you can easily hand them out to rough sleepers on the streets. These care packages are especially useful for rough sleepers who don’t feel comfortable living in shelters.

In the care packages, include gloves, socks, and hand warmers to help ward off frostbite. Of course, food packets and other food items are excellent items to include.

Miniature hygiene products including toothpaste, shampoo, and body wash, are also useful to include. But avoid donating full-size bottles. Generally, rough sleepers want to carry as little as possible, so miniaturized items are often more useful.

You could also consider putting in shop gift cards in care packages too. That way, rough sleepers have the chance to choose clothes and other warm items themselves.

Many homeless people don’t have adequate footwear and often wear beaten up tennis shoes or other types of footwear that aren’t suitable for cold temperatures. If you have an extra pair of boots or shoes, these are always great to donate to homeless people, especially during the winter.

Homeless charities, shelters, and organizations are always taking donations for cold-weather items too. A warm coat is especially useful to donate, as are blankets.

Only time will tell if the UK government will take suitable action to protect vulnerable homeless people from both the cold temperatures and the threat of COVID-19 this winter. Urgent action is crucial, and without it, many rough sleepers are likely to die.

Will the Protect Programme be enough to prevent potential deaths of homeless people this winter? Or is the government underestimating the number of new people experiencing rough sleeping or returning to the streets following the “Everyone In” scheme?

Ellie Swain

Ellie Swain


Ellie is a freelance writer who grew up in London. She is passionate about ending homelessness and writes for various publications, non-profits, and marketing agencies to produce content. In her spare time, Ellie loves travelling to new places, exploring her city of London, and listening to live music.

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