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Heatwave leaves homeless 'fighting' over water

By Jessica Labhart and Andre Rhoden-Paul
BBC News

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image captionMichael, 53, who has been homeless for seven years, said: “You suddenly realise you have no money for a drink of water."

How do the homeless cope with a heatwave? While many of us are basking in the summer sun, many people on the streets face dehydration, heat exhaustion and severe sunburn, say charities.

On Tuesday, outreach workers in Birmingham handed out water to the city's homeless.

"They were so desperate, they were fighting over the bottles of water," said Tracey Patterson, founder of Birmingham Homeless Support.

"I couldn't believe how some people hadn't had a drink for hours and hours.

"One woman we saw was so badly sunburned, all we could do was get her aftersun cream and try and keep her in the shade. We gave out suncream to the rest. The conditions are horrendous out there."

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image copyrightTracey Patterson
image captionOutreach workers handed out more than 120 bottles to Birmingham's homeless

Charities for the homeless typically receive the most donations in winter but unusually fine weather such as the UK has been experiencing recently poses its own dangers.

The NHS advises people should drink about two litres of six to eight glasses of water a day, and more than this during hot conditions.

Yet it can be difficult for the homeless to find free water. Most are not allowed in pubs, coffee shops or restaurants while public toilets are often located in large shopping centres patrolled by security guards.

image captionTo avoid being robbed or beaten up, many rough sleepers spend the nights on the move and instead sleep during the day

"If I go into a shop or cafe and try and ask for a glass of water, they always say no," said homeless woman, Sarah, in her 30s.

"If people think you're homeless, they just won't help you. If someone who didn't look homeless went in and asked for water, they'd get it. It's so frustrating.

"Security guards are always on the look-out for you. They think you're scum. They'll make sure you're not in their place for too long, or just boot you out straight away so it's hard to find shade for a long time.

"Even in parks and that there's always someone to tell you to move on."

To avoid being robbed or beaten up, many rough sleepers spend the nights on the move and instead sleep during the day. This makes them even more vulnerable to severe sunburn, said Jon Sparkes, chief executive of homeless charity Crisis.

The heat can also worsen existing health issues too.

One man, Steve, 46, has been living in a hostel in Birmingham for the past two months. He spends most of his days on the streets. He regularly visits homeless support organisation Sifa Fireside in Digbeth, which has been giving out two-litre bottles of water to their homeless visitors.

"I've been really thirsty, I must admit," he said.

"I have irritable bowel disease so it means I'm just really uncomfortable and need a lot of water. I probably won't have any water again until tomorrow."

Another man, Michael, 53, who has been homeless for seven years and now lives in a hostel, said: "During the day because of the heat you suddenly realise you have no money, and you need a drink of some kind.

"There used to be fountains everywhere - now they are all gone."

Michael said the strain of the heat could have bad consequences.

"It depends on your mental and physical condition. You can get angry - people do go off because they get warmed up and aggressive."

Crisis says ordinary people could make a difference through small acts of kindness.

How can you help people on the streets in the heat:

  • Ask them if they or their dog need water and give them some if so
  • Offer them sun cream
  • Give them a spare umbrella or sun hat or help them to find shade
  • Alert professionals, by using Street Link's website or app to enter details of the location, time and date you saw the person

Public Health England has advised that people should "look out for each other" during the hot weather.

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It added that "local authorities need to consider this vulnerable group [the homeless] in emergency planning during periods of extended hot weather" as part of the government's heat wave plan for England.

Birmingham City Council said it provided accommodation, health services and advice on keeping safe in hot weather through its Streetlink team which it says helps the homeless all year round.

image captionPublic Health England has advised that people should "look out for each other" during the hot weather

"I was out on the streets in the winter and yes it was worse," said Sarah.

"But being on the streets in general is the worst period in anyone's life.

"I always remember the people that said yes and got me a bottle of pop. You never forget them.

"Because most people just walk past you and don't give it a second thought. But we're struggling out there."

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