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‘If we don’t act, people could die’ – helping rough sleepers in the big freeze

A facility set up in a London church took in seven people on its first night during the capital’s longest period of extreme weather for seven years.

Dozens of outreach workers have stepped up efforts to help bring vulnerable rough sleepers in from the cold as London experiences its longest period of freezing weather for seven years.

Around 500 extra beds in shelters, hostels and churches have been made available in the capital through local authorities, charities, faith and community groups after a Swep (Severe Weather Emergency Protocol) plan was triggered.

In response to the bitter conditions, St Mungo’s homeless charity and the City of London have opened a new emergency shelter – in the Guild Church of Saint Mary Aldermary – which took in seven people on its first night.

St Mungo’s said London was experiencing its most prolonged period of freezing conditions for seven years, with overnight temperatures dipping to minus 3C (26.6F) in the capital’s snow-blanketed centre.

Sam, who has been sleeping rough for five days, was found just before midnight on Wednesday in an underpass next to a London Underground station.

He had no sleeping bag or blanket, and would have spent the whole night with nothing but the clothes he was wearing if the outreach team had not taken him to a shelter.

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Speaking inside, he said he was “very, very grateful”, adding that he had felt “cold but relieved that someone was there, that someone actually cared”, when the St Mungo’s workers approached him.

Asked how he had managed the cold, he said: “I’ve been walking around, but I find that I’ve got blisters on the bottom of my feet. I’ve been limping the past few days, it’s not been good at all.

“I just want to get back on track.”

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A tent in the City of London where rough sleepers spent the night (Jemma Crew/PA)

Kathleen Sims, the charity’s rough sleepers service development manager, said Sam had been forced on to the streets after fleeing “squalid conditions in the outskirts of London where he was being made to work for little to no money”.

Sam told her he had gone to another local authority earlier in the day and had been given a piece of paper to return the next day, which gave no details of any day centres or how he could refer himself.

She said: “It’s not acceptable, but I think that some local authorities are overwhelmed and they don’t know how to help everybody.

“It wasn’t the City of London he presented to, it was an outer-London borough, and I think this is how people get disillusioned and this is how people don’t trust services, because if you’re passed from pillar to post and you’re given pieces of paper and you’re expected when you’re hungry, cold, when you’ve got nothing – he had not a single item with him other than the clothes he was standing up in, not even a sleeping bag – how is he expected to move around, attend appointments and articulate himself? He’s not.

“And five days can quickly turn into five weeks, which can quickly turn into five months. And that’s the issue that we’re facing.”

The Press Association joined St Mungo’s outreach workers on a night shift around the Square Mile following up half a dozen referrals made by members of the public through StreetLink.

Several of those approached did not take up their offer of a warm bed, and Ms Sims said there were a myriad of reasons why this might be.

She said: “At times people are scared, they are scared of the unknown; however much we try to explain what we have to offer, it’s maybe out of their realm of understanding.

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“Some people don’t take compassion and understand it because they haven’t felt it for so long that they’re sceptical, some people have severe mental health issues and they might be paranoid, or have delusional thoughts and they don’t have the capacity to make informed decisions right now.”

Petra Salva, director of rough sleeper services, said deaths on the streets over the bitterly cold snap were “a horrific possibility”.

She said: “If we don’t act, then people could die and … we don’t know yet what the consequences of this prolonged cold weather has been.”

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She said her mouth had “dropped open” after she walked into the church and saw a homeless person her team have been working with for four years, who, until now, had not accepted offers of a bed inside.

She said: “If tonight, he was the only one who came in, it would make it worthwhile.”

But, she added, she was not comfortable with the idea that the doors would simply close on people as the emergency provisions end with the return of warmer weather.

She said: “The whole point of this is, yes, let’s get people in and out of the dangerous weather conditions, but actually once we’ve got that opportunity, let’s try and keep them in.”

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