Severe Weather Emergency Protocols: answering your questions

Tuesday, 13 March 2018 - 1:44pm

Recent sub-zero temperatures saw local Severe Weather Emergency Protocols (SWEP) in action across England, offering additional shelter to people sleeping rough.

man with snow on his face

Severe Weather Emergency Provision (SWEP) is provided by the Local Authority and opens for short periods when severe weather is forecast. Recent sub-zero temperatures saw local Severe Weather Emergency Protocols (SWEP) in action across England, offering additional shelter to people sleeping rough.

Local charities, councils, communities and partners mobilised their resources to reach people and create safe spaces for them to leave the streets. There was a huge response from members of the public with StreetLink receiving record numbers of alerts.

Here are some of the questions we’ve been asked about SWEP in recent weeks.

Why aren’t SWEP shelters open all the time?

Emergency SWEP provision takes many forms. People typically think of dormitory-style provision and these shelters exist – but not in every town. A small number of shelters have fixed premises and it’s more common for a shelter to move between different church halls each night of the week. These shelters already open during winter, usually operating at, or near capacity even without freezing weather.

SWEP is a temporary arrangement, for example, using communal areas of a hostel, booking people into a B&B for the night, or simply letting people sleep on the floor of a public building. This requires funding and staffing that isn’t available unless there’s an emergency.

Responses usually rely on staff and volunteers going beyond their usual commitments to provide an extended service. Other parts of a service can be scaled-back or suspended to prioritise resources for SWEP. This makes a huge difference and saves lives but it isn’t a sustainable way of delivering services week by week.

Who decides when to open SWEP?

There’s no national coordination of SWEP. The decision rests with each local authority, who must choose the temperature or weather threshold that will trigger their local response.

Why do some people stay on the streets when SWEP is open?

Every person sleeping rough will make their own decision about whether to accept an offer of shelter, based on their individual circumstances. Communal shelters can be intimidating and anxiety-provoking places and people might have to travel to an unfamiliar area away from their networks and support services.

Sometimes, communication from the local authority isn’t good enough and people might stay out because they don’t know how to access SWEP, especially if there’s no street outreach team. In the daytime, there’s not always somewhere inside for people to go– SWEP spaces aren’t usually open during the day and there isn’t a day centre in every area.

Why not open more empty buildings?

Empty buildings are often not equipped to act as shelters. Think about what you would want for an overnight stay: toilets, showers, cooking facilities or somewhere to sit and eat, heating, secure storage for belongings and changing rooms. While some shelter is better than no shelter, an empty building is not in itself an adequate response to someone’s homelessness – we should do better!

Where councils and charities do try to open shelters in empty buildings, it can be impossible to get planning permission when residents or businesses object to a shelter opening in their neighbourhood, even temporarily.

How is SWEP funded?

In many areas, SWEP depends on the contribution of charities and faith and community groups, both in time and donations. There is no national ring-fenced funding for SWEP and at a local level, each local authority makes its own provision and some shelters operate with no council funding.

It can be hard to budget for, as there’s no way of knowing when and how many times, SWEP will be needed each year. This winter has already seen two distinct periods of SWEP, including the unprecedented need for a full week of provision.

Why isn’t there is a list of all the SWEP provision in England?

Each local authority has its own SWEP protocol, referral routes and type of provision. Locations might increase with demand, or provision might be tailored to individuals (e.g. offering vulnerable people B&B instead of communal accommodation) and a list won’t reflect these arrangements.

However, councils should publicise their referral routes including out of hours provision, so that people don’t have to rely on being found on the streets. There is also national coordination of referrals via StreetLink, which connects people to the relevant local team.

Homeless Link will survey local authorities and charities providing SWEP to gather learning from this winter, in order to update and improve our guidance. Equally importantly, we are working with our members, local authorities and central government to improve responses to homelessness year-round.

Talk To Us

Tasmin Maitland

Head of innovation and good practice

Tasmin leads our Innovation and Good Practice team, with projects including Housing First England, London PLUS, Day Centres Project, Reboot, Counts & Estimates, and our effective practice guidance and toolkits.

Telephone: 020 7840 4451
Twitter: @Tasmin_IGP