Emergency shelters for the homeless have been opened across the country in a bid to help prevent the deaths of rough sleepers on the UK’s streets as freezing temperatures hit.
The Met Office is forecasting temperatures to fall below zero for the next couple of nights, after Arctic temperatures began travelling down towards Britain, prompting a blast of colder weather.
In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan said dropping temperatures meant all emergency shelters would be open to rough sleepers in the city throughout the weekend, with more than 700 spaces at severe weather shelters available every night, in addition to more than 600 beds in shelters run by faith and community groups.
Councils in Gloucester, Bournemouth, Cheltenham, Suffolk, Birmingham and Colchester are among those to also trigger their severe weather emergency protocol measures, known as SWEP.
But Met Office deputy chief meteorologist Jason Kelly said the country would not yet be seeing a repeat of the “beast from the east” – which saw Britain plunged into deep snow and ice for weeks in March last year and resulted up to 78 deaths on the UK’s streets.
The scale of homeless deaths was laid bare in December, with some 597 people sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation estimated to have died in the last year in England and Wales, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said. The figure represented a 24% leap from 482 in 2013, according to the department’s first research of its kind.
According to a November report by charity Shelter, 320,000 people in Britain are homeless, equivalent to one in every 200 people in Britain.
The highest levels are in London, where almost 170,000 people are without a place to call home. Plenty of areas outside the capital are feeling the impact of the housing crisis too, including Brighton (1 in 67), Birmingham (1 in 73) and Manchester (1 in 135).
Produced by charity Homeless Link, SWEP helps local councils in providing resources to prevent the deaths of people sleeping rough during winter.
As the protocol was triggered, Greg Beales, campaign director at Shelter, told HuffPost UK: “The cold weather exposes how hard life is for people living on the streets where they are already facing dangerous conditions that can severely damage mental and physical health. It’s a disgrace that so many of our fellow citizens are still sleeping rough in modern Britain.
“While we welcome government efforts to try to start tackling the crisis – we also need to see investment in social homes, so people can afford their rent and keep a roof over their head in the first place.”
Beales said members of the public could help by providing rough sleepers with money or a hot drink, but said the best thing to do is get in touch with Streetlink, “who can get outreach services directly to the person.”
Mayor Sadiq Khan also encouraged people to support rough sleepers through the charity’s alert system, or by donating through new contactless donation points, or online.
Last year, the mayor rolled out 35 new TAP London contactless donation points across London as part of his rough sleeping campaign.
A spokesman for the mayor said this was the second time this winter that emergency shelters have been opened, after they were open for four consecutive nights in mid December.
Petra Salva, director of rough sleeper services at St Mungo’s, said: “Our teams are working hard to get people safely indoors. Getting to people quickly really is a matter of life and death.”
According to the Met Office, temperatures in inner London could drop to zero or minus 1C on Friday night, with the outskirts of the city possibly experiencing minus 2C or minus 3C.
“Most towns and cities [will be] hovering just below freezing or just above depending on the amount of cloud,” said meteorologist Craig Snell.
He added: “You will probably see a frost one of the nights coming up depending on where you are.”
Areas in the West Midlands, Wales and eastern Scotland could see temperatures of around minus 6C and minus 7C on Thursday night and western cities could be hit by minus 2C or minus 3C conditions on Friday night.
Temperatures are expected to remain chilly at the start of the weekend but increased cloud cover could bring milder conditions on Sunday in London.
Snell said: “Subtle differences with the cloud amounts will give some changes to the forecast as we get closer to the weekend.”