Emergency accommodation for rough sleepers in winter

Accommodation options available for people sleeping rough during winter, including the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP).

Updated November 2023 | First published December 2021

Homeless applications

People who are homeless can apply for help from any local authority. Use Shelter's digital tool to find the contact details for a local authority.

A local authority has a duty to provide interim accommodation if it has reason to believe the person might be:

  • homeless

  • eligible for assistance

  • in priority need

A person can have a priority need if they are vulnerable, for example because of a physical or mental health condition. A person’s circumstances can be relevant. For example, a person sleeping rough might be more vulnerable during cold weather.

Find out more about the homeless application process on Shelter Legal.

Support for ineligible people with care needs

Many rough sleepers might not be eligible for homelessness assistance due to their immigration status.

If a rough sleeper has care and support needs that cannot be met without providing them with housing, social services have a duty to provide accommodation under the Care Act 2014. 

Paying for interim accommodation

The local authority should provide interim accommodation while it makes further enquiries into other homelessness duties.

Homeless applicants who are not working or on a low income might be able to claim housing benefit to help with their accommodation costs.  Applicants can claim universal credit for their other living costs.

Public authority duty to refer

Some public authorities, including accident and emergency services provided in a hospital, must notify the local authority if someone who has engaged with them may be homeless.

The public authority should send the person’s name and contact details to the local authority, and the local authority must contact the homeless person to discuss the options available.

Severe Weather Emergency Protocol

A local authority does not have a statutory duty to provide accommodation for rough sleepers, even during cold weather, unless the person meets the criteria for a homeless application. But there is a humanitarian obligation on local authorities to do all they can to prevent harm on the streets.

Extreme cold, wind and rain can be a serious risk to health and life if a person is exposed overnight or for long periods. Many local authorities and their local partners provide emergency provision during periods of cold or severe weather.

A severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP) is a local authority’s temporary response to the risks from severe weather. The protocol is accessible to anyone who needs help. This includes people who do not have recourse to public funds or a priority need for homeless help.

When a local authority should act

The trigger for a SWEP is usually a forecast of three or more consecutive nights with a minimum temperature of zero degrees celsius or lower. Local authorities are encouraged to be flexible in their response and consider:

  • the 'feels like' temperature

  • forecasts approaching zero degrees

  • the impact of rain, snow, wind chill and ice

Temperatures just above freezing can be just as harmful as sub-zero degrees.

Local authorities are encouraged to be flexible about when assistance is necessary and follow the Met Office's UK weather warnings.

What action a local authority could take

Under a SWEP most local authorities provide rough sleepers with a bed in a shelter, food, and washing facilities. This provides shelter from the weather and helps prevent health problems. For example, the opportunity to change out of wet clothes to avoid trench foot.

Some charities set up winter shelters during the coldest part of the year.

SWEP and winter provision toolkit

Homeless Link publishes a severe weather and winter provision toolkit for local authorities, homelessness services, and faith and community groups.

The toolkit supports local authorities to provide SWEP responses to prevent deaths of people rough sleeping during winter. It also contains guidance for organisations setting up winter provision, including suggested accommodation models.

Referring rough sleepers for help

Local authorities could share SWEP referral routes with organisations who might be in touch with people sleeping rough, including police and outreach teams. The guidance suggests simple and effective communication is essential.

The referral process should be clear to ensure that services understand what is offered and who it is intended for. This reduces the risk of inappropriate referrals.

Contact StreetLink if you’re worried about someone sleeping rough.

Night shelters, direct access hostels, refuges and day centres

Rough sleepers can contact their local authority and ask about emergency options in the area. Use Shelter's digital tool to find the contact details for a local authority.

Night shelters

Night shelters provide basic accommodation and might be available to those who cannot claim benefits.

People staying in first-come first-served night shelters where they cannot remain during the day or leave their belongings are not entitled to housing benefit for any overnight charges. Many night shelters do not charge for a bed.

Find night shelters across the country on The No Accommodation Network website.

Direct access hostels

Direct access hostels do not require referrals. They might have admission criteria, such as only being available to people with specific support needs. Most hostels do not accept asylum seekers or those who cannot claim benefits because they are subject to immigration control.

Rough sleepers who are on a low income or not working might need to claim housing benefit while they stay in a hostel if it is managed or owned by a:

  • local authority

  • registered charity

  • voluntary organisation

  • provider of social housing

This accommodation is excluded from universal credit.

Refuges

Refuges provide emergency accommodation and specialist support to people who are homeless because they have fled domestic abuse.

Day centres

Day centres do not provide overnight accommodation but can help rough sleepers access shelter. Many offer food, washing facilities, and can signpost to long-term support.

Further resources

Shelter Legal

Support for rough sleepers - practical advice, severe weather protocols, referring a rough sleeper to local services

Gov.uk guidance

Homelessness code of guidance for local authorities - how local authorities should exercise their homelessness functions

Practical support

Homeless Link SWEP toolkit - guidance on cold weather provision, SWEP and heatwaves.

Streetlink - connect people sleeping rough with the local services that can support them

About the author

Charlie Howard is a legal editor at Shelter. Before that, Charlie was a housing adviser and a team leader at the Bristol Shelter Hub.