Emergency action is being taken to try and get rough sleepers into shelter during the cold weather – as figures show homeless people in the Potteries are dying at twice the national rate.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council has announced the start of its severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP).
Alongside Newcastle Borough Council, the city authority is working in partnership with Brighter Futures and a range of other faith and charity groups to make sure support is available.
It comes as the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has revealed there were six confirmed deaths of people living on the streets of Stoke-on-Trent last year. A further two deaths weren’t recorded as homeless at the time.
That figure is the highest since comparable records began in 2013. It brings the total number of homeless deaths in Stoke-on-Trent to 26 over a six-year period between 2013 and 2018.
That works out at a rate of 23.8 deaths per million people – which is nearly twice the England and Wales average of 13 deaths per million.
Lou Macari, founder of the Macari Centre for the homeless, in Hanley, said: “When it gets colder, there seem to be more people around. Maybe they can cope with the good weather, but when the bad weather comes around, it’s totally different.
“Anyone who has done the sleep-out at Stoke City’s ground would realise how bad it is. It’s bad enough sleeping rough, but when it gets colder, it’s a shock to the system.
“I don’t know how they cope. When you do the sleep-out, just from one night sleeping rough, it takes you two or three days to recover.”
Shaun Wall, aged 46, has experienced life on the streets, both in his native Stoke-on-Trent and in London.
The former Birches Head High School pupil, who now volunteers to work with the homeless at Fenton’s Temple Street Methodist Church, said: “It gets very cold, but it’s amazing how many T-shirts and jumpers you can fit on you.
“When I was on the streets, I prayed every night before I went to sleep that I wouldn’t wake up with a knife stuck in me. I had got a bag of clothing and a laptop, and I didn’t know if someone was going to rob me or stab me.
“But a lot of people on the streets have problems with drink and alcohol. There are some people who are career homeless, and some who we have tried to help but they have turned it down.”
The ONS figure takes into account the likely number of people who were not actually registered as homeless when they died, using a model it says provides a ‘robust but conservative’ estimate – which means the real numbers could be even higher.
The figures also show that there was one homeless death last year in Newcastle, one in Stafford, and one in the Staffordshire Moorlands. Over the last six years, seven homeless people died in Newcastle, three in Stafford and one in the Moorlands.
That brings the total number of homeless deaths across North Staffordshire up to 37.
Across England and Wales, there were an estimated 726 deaths of homeless people in 2018.
The city council’s emergency protocol is triggered when temperatures are forecast to drop to zero degrees or lower each day between the start of November and the end of March, and is monitored on a daily basis.
Councillor Randy Conteh, cabinet member for communities and a safer city, said: “We’re working hard with our partners to eradicate rough sleeping in Stoke-on-Trent, but we recognise that for some people immediate solutions are not always available.
“For those individuals, it’s important that we have emergency accommodation, especially in periods of extreme cold or other severe weather.
“This protocol will complement the wide range of services that are already available to prevent homelessness and tackle rough sleeping.”