Crisis as homeless sent back on streets

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The Independent Online
Four hundred homeless people will today leave London's emergency Christmas shelter despite the continuing bitter cold. The homeless charity Crisis said the shelter had to close, but the Government agreed to fund an extra 100 places until Tuesday.

At the same time Lothian social services opened an extra 13 beds in Edinburgh following the death on Wednesday on the streets of Bathgate of John Murphy, 54, a homeless man.

The Department of the Environment's action came as Crisis said that 400 people a night had slept at its emergency shelter in Wandsworth, south- west London, since it opened two days before Christmas and as the Resource Information Service, which co-ordinates hostel places in the capital, said that demand for beds had been "very high".

Crisis said that its Christmas shelter had to close because it was staffed entirely by volunteers. "They have to go back to work and it is just not feasible to keep it open," a spokeswoman said. Of those who have used the shelter, perhaps 200 were literally homeless and while the extra beds - 30 of which Crisis will provide at a centre in London's East End - would help, the situation remained alarming. "When the weather is like this, you have the risk of people dying on the streets from cold. It is frightening".

A spokesman for the DoE said it had already opened 28 emergency severe weather beds, but maintained that not all of them had been taken up over the Christmas period. It would review the position again in the light of the weather on Tuesday when day-centres and other services for the homeless will resume normal service after the New Year holiday.

Liz Nicholson, director of the charity for the homeless Shelter in Scotland, said that Mr Murphy's death was "just waiting to happen. I don't know how anybody can survive -19C ... [as] it was in Edinburgh last night."

Les McEwan, director of social work for Lothian and Edinburgh, said the decision to open extra beds had been taken in light of the weather and before the details of Mr Murphy's death were known.

As of yesterday there had been five applications for the places, but he said: "It is the case that some people choose not to go to hostels, however much we might want ... them to do so." Some preferred, he said, to remain outside despite the cold.

Manchester reached -12C, while an unmanned weather station in Leconfield in Humberside recorded England's low of -15C. The coldest temperature ever recorded in England was -26.1C at Newport, Shropshire, on 10 January, 1982. The lowest in Scotland was -27.2C at Braemar on the same date.

An 87-year-old man is feared to have fallen victim to the cold. He was found collapsed near sheltered housing in Edinburgh where he was thought to be a resident.

A family stranded by ice on an isolated island in Ulster's Lough Neagh was airlifted to safety by the RAF as their food and fuel supplies dwindled.

Mel Downey, warden of the National Trust-owned Coney Island, had made a number of attempts since Christmas to get to shore but could not break through the ice. Lough rescue boats were also unable to get through.

His family's problems multiplied when his wife, Julia, slipped on the island's jetty and suffered extensive bruising to her ribs.

After her rescue today she was taken to hospital for X-rays. Mrs Downey said: "Normally we keep a good supply of food and fuel on the island but we had planned to visit relatives in England for the new year and had allowed the stocks to run down.

"Then the snow and ice arrived, adding to our problems. When the helicopter arrived we were down to our last bag of coal and the generator was starting to run down."