Winter storm. Photo by Andy Falconer on Unsplash

In this edition we focus the Spotlight on the change in weather.

In this issue of Spotlight we are focusing on the often unpredictable weather in the UK, and how this can have an impact on the homeless and vulnerable. Would you be able to survive a night out in the cold? Some people do not have a choice.

The most common small talk topic… British Weather!

Britain is well known for its unpredictable weather, it can be sunny and warm one minute, then raining the next. As we draw closer to the colder months of the year, we will most likely be pulling out those warm jumpers and big coats. The nights are getting darker, and we will spend evenings at home, with the central heating on, and hot meals to keep us warm.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the UK is as lucky. In 2017, there were a recorded 4,751 people who were homeless, however, this number may not be accurate, due to people moving around or hiding in derelict buildings. These people will not be able to go home to a warm house and eat hot meals.

According to statistics, at least 78 homeless people died last winter. Some died in doorways or in tents pitched in the snow. Others died in shelters or passed away in hospitals after living on the streets. Many were rough sleepers, others were statutory homeless and staying in temporary accommodation. Cold weather conditions can prove fatal for people sleeping on the streets. Tragically, the average age of death for a homeless person is just 47.

It is not just the homeless that the cold weather can have an effect on. Vulnerable people such as the elderly can also suffer. Lack of money or mobility can result in unpaid utility bills, leaving them without heating. In adverse weather conditions, people who are unable to safely get out of the house may not be able to get to shops for food or to the pharmacy for their critical medication.

The Health Effects

Cold weather can cause many issues with a person’s health. Being in the freezing temperatures for a prolonged period of time can cause fatal illnesses. Below are some examples and their symptoms.

  • Raynaud’s: A common condition that can affect the blood supply and nervous system to certain parts of the body, but more commonly the fingers and toes. The symptoms significantly increase in cold weather when the blood vessels go into a temporary spasm which blocks the flow of blood. Sufferers usually experience pain, numbness and pins and needles in the affected body parts. Symptoms can last from a few minutes to several hours.
  • Hypothermia: This can develop when a person’s body loses heat more quickly than it can produce it. Normal body temperature is around 37ºc and hypothermia develops when the body temperature drops by a mere 2ºc. This drop in temperature prevents the vital organs from working correctly, which can lead to organ failure and, potentially, death.
    Painful joints: Cold weather can cause joint pain for some people, particularly in load-bearing joints such as the knees, hips and ankles. There are various theories as to why the cold causes joint pain, which could be to do with the diversion of blood flow to the core causing the blood vessels in the joints to constrict, or potentially due to an inflammatory response in the joints to changes in barometric pressure.
  • Heart attacks: The incidence of heart attacks increases in the winter because of the concentration of blood flow in the core of the body during cold weather, which increases blood pressure and puts the heart under more strain. According to the British Heart Foundation, the risk of heart attack and stroke doubles during three-day cold periods compared with shorter cold ‘snaps’ – deaths from heart attack and stroke increased by 14% between December 2015 and March 2016 compared to the rest of the year.

What Can We Do To Help?

If you pass by a homeless person who you think is at risk or vulnerable, please report it to the professions. Street Link is a government-funded service which allows people to alert local authorities in England and Wales about rough sleepers in need of support. You can call Street Link, or use the website of app on a smart phone.

Many people are cautious of giving money to those on the street, as they are unsure on what they will spend it on. The advice given by Rik James, who runs Birmingham Homeless Outreach, is to offer them food, not money. Purchasing them a hot meal or warm drink will ensure that the money is not being spent on other things.

If you wish to make a donation to the homeless shelters or charities in your area, think about the small things. Unwanted coats, bedding and sleeping bags are extremely important items to those who are sleeping on the streets. Socks, under-wear, hats, gloves and scarfs can help a person to keep as warm as possible.

Look out for your fellow neighbours. If you know someone who is alone and who may not be able to get out to shops or seek medical help, ask them if there is anything you can get for them.

If the person needs urgent medical attention or you believe they are under 18 years of age please call 999.

More information

The offline version of this issue of Spotlight On can be found here

We also produce a publication called Omega Health, which has a variety of Health related topics. You can browse our past issues here.

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