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Emergency accommodation for rough sleepers in winter

Posted on 23/12/21 in Housing Matters

Emergency accommodation for rough sleepers in winter

This article was originally published on 10 December 2021 and has been updated to reflect new guidance from the Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing.

Rough sleepers are at a significantly higher risk of harm and death when the temperature drops and the weather worsens. According to government statistics, in autumn 2020 there were approximately 2688 people seen sleeping rough on a single night in England. 

In this article, Charlie Howard looks at the emergency accommodation options available to those sleeping rough this winter. Charlie Howard is a senior legal content producer at Shelter.

Accommodation during the pandemic

On 20 December 2021, the Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing wrote a letter to all local authorities in England asking them to make offers of "safe and appropriate" accommodation to people sleeping rough.

Local authorities should assess each individual's circumstances and exhaust all legal options to support them. The letter states that it is the government's view that the current state of the pandemic enables authorities to exercise public health and emergency powers to provide accommodation. These powers allow a local authority to accommodate people who are not eligible for homelessness assistance.

During the Covid-19 pandemic additional support was made available to protect rough sleepers. Rough sleepers were accommodated under national ‘Everyone In’ and ‘Protect Programme’ initiatives. The government has announced additional funding to support rough sleepers from 2021/22 onwards.

Homelessness applications

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

The local authority that receives the application has a duty to provide interim accommodation if there is a reason to believe that the applicant may be:

  • homeless
  • eligible for assistance
  • in priority need

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

Eligible for assistance

To be eligible for homelessness assistance, the applicant must be able to access public funds. This means that some people might not qualify for help based on their immigration and residence status.

Priority need

Some people automatically have a priority need, including where a person is homeless as a result of being a victim of domestic abuse.

A person can also have a priority need if they are vulnerable, for example as a result of a physical or mental health condition. The Homelessness Code of Guidance advises local authorities to consider the vulnerability of homeless applicants with underlying health conditions in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and where applicants have a history of rough sleeping.  

During the Covid-19 pandemic, additional groups of people can have a priority need. This includes applicants who:

  • are 70 years old or older
  • have a medical condition which increases vulnerability to Covid-19

These provisions are in addition to the existing priority need test and are in force until 24 March 2022.  

Paying for interim accommodation

Homeless applicants who are not working or on a low income may be able to claim housing benefit to help with their accommodation costs. 

Universal credit does not cover the costs of accommodation secured by a local authority to meet its homelessness duty. Homeless applicants must claim housing benefit instead. Claimants can claim universal credit for their other living costs. People who get legacy benefits might be disadvantaged by claiming universal credit.

Support for ineligible people with care needs

Many rough sleepers do not meet the eligibility criteria for homelessness assistance.

If a rough sleeper is assessed as having care and support needs that cannot be met without providing them with somewhere to live, social services have a duty to provide accommodation under the Care Act 2014. 

Powers to accommodate during emergencies and disasters

Local authorities have the power to provide accommodation to people in their area, including those who do not qualify for homelessness assistance, where there is an emergency or a disaster that involves danger to life. In R (on the application of Ncube) v Brighton and Hove City Council, the High Court held that the Covid-19 pandemic meets the definition of an emergency.

Night shelters, direct access hostels, refuges and day centres

Rough sleepers can also contact their local authority and ask about emergency options in the area.

Night shelters

The No Accommodation Network provides information about night shelters across the country. These shelters provide basic accommodation and might be available to those who cannot claim benefits.  

At the beginning of the pandemic, all communal night shelters were closed. Night shelters started to reopen in late 2020. Some local authorities have made provisions for safer options such as self-contained accommodation.

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 as they are not classed as occupying a dwelling as their home. However, many night shelters do not charge for a bed. 

Direct access hostels

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

Rough sleepers who are not working or on a low income may need to claim housing benefit while they stay in a hostel if it is managed or owned by a provider of social housing, a local authority, voluntary organisation or registered charity, as this is another type of accommodation which is excluded under the universal credit system. 


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 shelters and hostels. Many offer food, washing facilities, and can signpost to longer-term support.

The Severe Weather Emergency Protocol

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.

Under a SWEP, most local authorities provide rough sleepers with a bed in a shelter, food, and washing facilities. 

The trigger for a SWEP is usually a weather forecast of three or more consecutive nights of a minimum temperature of zero degrees or lower. Local authorities are encouraged to be flexible in their response, as severe weather may also include near-freezing temperatures, snow, rain, and other weather warnings. 

Homeless Link publishes a good practice guide for local authorities to advise on appropriate responses during periods of severe weather. The guide is commissioned by the government. In addition, some charities set up winter shelters to provide accommodation during the coldest part of the year.

If you’re worried about someone sleeping rough, contact StreetLink.

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

Further resources

Homeless Link: Guidance on cold weather provision
Homelessness code of guidance for local authorities

Shelter Legal

Support for rough sleepers
Priority need in homeless applications
Covid-19: homelessness
Help for adults from abroad who are ineligible for homelessness assistance
Universal credit housing costs element payment condition
People who are excluded from claiming housing benefit
Public authority duty to refer