AAs the UK cooks in unprecedented temperatures, news sites are full of advice on how to stay safe. Most of them come down to what I will begrudgingly call common sense: drink plenty of water, avoid the midday sun, and stay indoors. But what if you are homeless on the streets?
No one is more vulnerable to extreme temperatures than people forced to live on the streets. Of course, it’s usually the wintry cold snaps that arouse our compassion, as we pass people shivering in doorways. But as climate scientists warned today, the UK is no longer a cold country – and unless we prepare for more of these extreme heat waves, thousands more deaths will follow. And as with extreme cold, homeless people are much more vulnerable to extreme heat.
Why? For starters, most people living on the streets have substance addiction issues – if you see someone in a sleeping bag in a doorway today, chances are they don’t. don’t just catch 40 winks. Passing out under a sleeping bag in direct sunlight isn’t a good idea for anyone, but it’s much worse if you’re on drugs or have been drinking. Dehydration and heatstroke are possibilities, as are severe sunburn and, in the long run, skin cancer.
Charities and councils are trying to get people off the streets and out of the heat, handing out sunscreen and water. Some authorities have triggered the severe weather emergency protocol, usually adopted in winter to get homeless people out of the cold and put them in an emergency shelter. However, homeless organizations do not have an all-seeing eye. It’s there that you intervene.
If you see someone at risk on the street, you can do something about them. If they are exposed to direct sunlight, orient them towards the shade. Offer them water, food or sunscreen. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, contact Street Link – in fact, do it anyway. Street Link allows the public to connect homeless people to local services that can help them find temporary accommodation. Call them or download their app. And if it’s an emergency, dial 999.
Of course, none of this, or very little, would be necessary if the supply of homeless help in this country were nearly adequate. I say this in almost every article (and book) I’ve written on this topic, but let me say it again: this problem doesn’t go away without long-term investment in truly affordable social housing, the authorities local authorities and the health service.
The Conservative Party will soon appoint a new leader and our Prime Minister, which could trigger a snap election. If so, we can take the first step towards the right thing by kicking the party that oversaw the 80% increase in homeless deaths between 2019 and 2021 from Downing Street. For now, keep your eyes peeled and the Street Link app open.
Daniel Lavelle writes about mental health, homelessness and social care. His book Down and Out: Surviving the Homelessness Crisis is published by Wildfire (£18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
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