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20 July 2022

Homeless communities need help surviving heatwaves

People without homes are more likely to die due to the summer heat than the winter cold.

By Samir Jeraj

In the run-up to this week’s heatwave, health and homelessness services were bracing themselves for the impact on the UK’s homeless communities. Severe heat causes dehydration and stress on the heart and other body organs. For people who cannot shelter inside and get cooling drinks, the effects can be fatal.

According to the Museum of Homelessness, which runs the Dying Homeless Project, in 2021 the highest number of deaths in a month was recorded in June, and the following three months had the subsequent highest numbers. For last year, the warmer months proved to be more deadly for people who were homeless.

Speaking about this summer’s unusually hot spell, Matt Downie, chief executive of the homelessness charity Crisis, said: “These soaring temperatures are a health emergency for people sleeping on our streets. To be exposed to this extreme heat without a safe place to take shelter will be a danger to life for some. It’s as stark as that.”

Councils can choose to trigger their severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP) in order to protect homeless people. When this happens, homeless services open up emergency shelters and use outreach teams to get people inside. The SWEP is traditionally used in winter months (many councils still refer to it as their "severe winter emergency protocol"). However, Westminster Council triggered it in 2018 in response to high temperatures, and in 2020 across London, Mayor Sadiq Khan used his additional SWEP powers for the first time during a summer.

Last week, the SWEP protocols once again came into force across the capital and many local councils around the country. Crisis called on all local authorities to trigger their arrangements to offer emergency shelter to protect the health of people sleeping rough in their areas during the heatwave.

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Several charities and NGOs have called on the government to be better prepared for heatwaves and are urging for SWEP-style measures to be made mandatory for councils during extreme weather.

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"Right now, councils have the option of choosing whether or not they activate measures to protect people from deadly weather and it's not enough,” said Matt Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness. He added that “severe heatwaves and unpredictable weather are here to stay so people with the purse strings need to act urgently to prevent further deaths in the future".

[Read more: How will the heatwave impact the NHS?]