Rough sleepers at risk in blistering heat

Warning that more homeless people die in very hot weather than during winter cold months

Thursday, 14th July — By Frankie Lister-Fell


Streets Kitchen volunteers Maddie, Elodie and Joey after a shift on Tuesday morning in Camden High Street

A HOMELESSNESS volunteer was in tears after witnessing more than 20 rough sleepers suffering in the stifling heat on Monday night – amid warnings that more support is desperately needed as the July heatwave continues. Campaigner Phil Cowan, who regularly works with groups handing out meals to people on the streets, said he gave out pallets of water bottles outside Camden Town Underground.

“It was like a scene from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” he said. “It was horrendous. I spoke to 20 people who had nowhere to stay that night and who were struggling with issues of hydration and addiction.

“One woman had passed out by the HSBC and was taken to hospital. “When I first got involved in working with homeless people I thought homelessness was a terrible problem in winter. It’s not. It’s 12 months a year.”

Research from the ongoing Dying Homeless Project found that in 2020, more homeless people – including those living in emergency and temporary accommodation – died in summer than in winter. Chronic conditions like breathing problems are made worse by heat. Yet there is a misconception that cold weather is worse for people on the streets.

Rachel Cullen, community manager at the homelessness charity in Kentish Town the Simon Community, warned: “In winter, extreme cold is recognised as being dangerous. But in the summer it’s just not recognised in the same way. “We know it kills people. We wouldn’t leave old people out in this. Mortality rates are different for people out on the street. [Rough sleeping] takes a big physical toll on people especially over the years.”

The council told the New Journal that the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) was put in place on Friday after the Greater London Authority triggered it. In cold weather, SWEP means the council must provide temporary accommodation to each homeless person, but the Town Hall said this does not apply to hot weather.

Instead, Camden’s Routes Off The Streets Service (RTS), which is made up of just 10 people, is “signposting” public buildings and parks where people can cool off, including its daytime hub in Greenland Street that has a capacity of 20 people.

There has been some evidence that outreach has increased. Elodie Berland, a volunteer at the grassroots group Streets Kitchen, was joined by the council’s rough sleeping commissioner at their shift on Tuesday morning, where they gave out 60 breakfasts to homeless people.

Councillor Pat Callaghan, the deputy council leader, said RTS is providing advice on how to stay cool as well as “water, suncream and hats” to homeless people during the heatwave. But Dave, who sleeps rough around Camden Town and whose surname we cannot print, said someone from the council only gave him a card with numbers to call and pointed him to hostels that many rough sleepers remain suspicious of going to.

He was not offered a bottle of water. Struggling with a lung infection, he said: “I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to die. I’ve been on this mat for 56 years and I’ve looked after myself. They aren’t really helping us. Maybe they’ve got good intentions but it seems like all they want to do is move us on to hide the problem.”

He added: “I’ve got a case and a rucksack. Pulling that everywhere, especially in the last three days, it really takes a toll.” Another homeless person who stays near Regent’s Park, and asked not to be named, said that he relies on “people walking past” for bottles of water and was not aware that there are public water fountains in the park and in Camden High Street. Mr Cowan said: “Not one of the homeless people I spoke to on Monday had been informed by RTS that SWEP was in place.”

Cllr Callaghan said: “The welfare of anyone sleeping rough in Camden is of the upmost importance to us, especially so during any extreme weather. Our outreach teams work hard to support every person sleeping rough in Camden. “Anyone who is rough sleeping in the borough can contact them for free on 0808 8000005 or attend the Routes off The Streets hub in Greenland Street, Camden Town.”

Streets Kitchen volunteer Elodie Berland urged those struggling to visit the charity’s Solidarity Hub, which offers cold showers, at 48 Seven Sisters Road. It is now open every day from 11am to early evening during the hot weather. The organisation is urgently looking for more volunteers.

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