CHURCHES across Oxford are set to open their doors to help the city's homeless over the winter months.

Starting in the New Year, emergency night shelter accommodation for homeless men and women will be on offer through January, February and March.

Rough sleeping increased in the city in 2017 leading to local council and homelessness agencies uniting to tackle the problem, with the church winter night shelter launching on Tuesday.

City centre churches which have offered accommodation are St Aldate’s, St Alban’s, St Clement’s, St Columba’s, St Ebbe’s, St Michael at the Northgate and Wesley Memorial.

Bob Earl, 69, church warden at St Michael at the North Gate, said: "The churches will take turns each night so the winter night shelter can run seven days a week.

"The homeless will get a hot drink when they come in, a bed for the night and a hot drink and porridge in the morning.

In November statistics released to the Oxford Mail showed only 22 of 80 rough sleepers surveyed in the city in August were in accommodation by October.

Each of the churches has enough room for 10 people, so there will be 70 beds provided by the scheme on a first come, first serve basis.

It will be run on a voluntary basis, with scores of helpers given specific training to ensure they can deal with any problems which arise.

Rev Mary Gurr, Oxford Diocese homelessness chaplain, said: "We have spent months training 200 volunteers for this.

"St Aldate's Church opened its basement for 27 days as a pilot in February - that went very well and there was a vision that this could be opened out to other churches.

"We are now ready to continue and the outreach team in the city will refer people to us.

"We will accommodate up to ten people a night so it will bring the rough sleeper count down.

"We have had to be very cautious regarding health and safety regulations."

The churches have not been the only organisations to respond to Oxford's homelessness problem.

Voluntary group Homes4All wanted to set up a homeless shelter in the former Lush store on Cornmarket after the retailer moved to the Westgate Centre.

It obtained permission from Lush, who had originally boarded up the store, but were unable to ensure the building was safe and there were enough volunteers to staff the four storey building over Christmas.

They have, however, opened a café in the shop which launched on December 23 and which will now run until the end of January.

Deborah Robson-Grey, of Homes4All, said they were keen to look at other buildings in Oxford to use as homeless shelters in the future.

Oxford City Council also said on Wednesday that its Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) for rough sleepers was now operational.

This means the council and local homelessness organisations make extra bed spaces available for rough sleepers in the city when the overnight temperature is forecast to be below zero.

When SWEP is activated emergency accommodation is available for anyone who would otherwise be sleeping rough on the night – even if they would not usually be eligible for the city’s adult homeless pathway.

The council operates SWEP under guidance from Homeless Link, and in consultation with key local partners St Mungo’s and Homeless Oxfordshire (formerly Oxford Homeless Pathways).

SWEP opens on the first night of a period when the Met Office forecasts the temperature will fall to zero or below on three or more consecutive nights.

It can also open on a discretionary basis during other adverse weather conditions. SWEP was also activated on Christmas Eve.

The council has alerted The Porch, A2Dominion and other providers that work alongside St Mungo’s and Homeless Oxfordshire that SWEP has been activated.

The Oxford Street Population Outreach Team (Oxford SPOT), which is run by St Mungo’s and based at Homeless Oxfordshire’s O’Hanlon House, will tell potential rough sleepers that SWEP beds will be made available.

To support the church winter night shelter people can make a donation to Barclays, 20-65-20 A/c 83541320.

Cheques payable to Oxford Winter Night Shelter can be sent c/o Parish Manager, OWNS, St Michael at the Northgate, Cornmarket Street, OX1 3EY.

Claire Dowan, chief executive of Homeless Oxfordshire, formerly Oxford Homeless Pathways, was unavailable for comment.