Oxford City Council announced last week the return of their Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP). The policy is intended to provide overnight accommodation to homeless people living in Oxford in the event of particularly harsh winter weather.
In a press release issued on Saturday, the Council expanded on their plan for housing those in need of shelter over the winter. In partnership with the charities St Mungo’s and Homelessness Oxfordshire, thirty bedspaces have been secured across twenty-five rooms. The Protocol will then be activated if certain extreme weather conditions, such as snow or freezing or feels-like-freezing temperatures, are predicted.
The decision to activate will be made on a day-by-day basis, and anyone believed to be in need will be contacted and offered a place by representatives of St Mungo’s outreach team over the course of the day. In a continuation of the social distancing measures first implemented in response to the coronavirus last year, homeless people will also be offered separate and segregated accommodation if they so desire. Communal spaces, will only be available to one person at a time. For the first time, accommodation will also be pet-friendly, and room in dog kennels will be allocated to those who arrange in advance.
The Council believes that these provisions ought to meet the needs of Oxford’s homeless community, particularly as the busiest night last year saw demand for as few as eighteen beds. However, contingency plans are in place should the number of people in need of accommodation be higher than predicted. A Council spokesperson clarified that the policy, if deemed necessary, would involve the introduction into the scheme of “a number of venues and hotels … used over the course of the pandemic,” but stressed that such an eventuality is currently viewed as highly unlikely.
This week’s announcement ought to serve as a relief to Oxford’s particular – and growing – homeless community, which in 2020 was estimated to be four times the size in relative terms of its London equivalent. In light of the pandemic’s disproportionate effect on homeless people, and the record-breaking length and harshness of last year’s wintry conditions, it will likely be reassuring that such plans are in place.
When asked about the Council’s level of consultation with homeless people, a Council spokesperson noted that a questionnaire was distributed to each individual who took up the offer of accomodation last year. The results of these questionnaires have informed this year’s policies, including the decision to maintain separate room spaces, in spite of the scarcity of available venues. The Council also points to their close working relationship with the Lived Experience Advisory Forum, a board consisting of people with lived experience of homelessness.