CHURCHES will offer shelter for the homeless tonight with council-run severe weather emergency measures launched as temperatures in Oxford plummet below freezing.

Last year seven churches in the city launched the Oxford Winter Night Shelter, and the scheme has now expanded to 12 churches to cater for the growing number of homeless people in the city.

The scheme, which will be run until March 31, is being launched at the right time, with temperatures set to plummet to -3C tonight.

UK weather forecasters have warned that a cold snap from Russia - the ‘Beast from the East’ - will cause temperatures to plunge for the next three months, with the UK on track for the coldest winter on record.

The city council has now launched SWEP - its severe weather protocol providing extra beds for rough sleepers, in addition to the church’s scheme.

Rev Mary Gurr, the city’s chaplain to the homeless, said: “If the forecasts are right the winter night shelter is being launched at just the right time. We have 300 volunteers from all walks of life who are ready to help out.”

The church scheme first ran from January to March last year, providing a boost to the homelessness provision overseen by other agencies in the city.

Now it will shelter 20 people a night in church buildings, double the number looked after by volunteers last year.

As well as getting the chance to bed down for the night, rough sleepers will be given a drink and a snack - which is likely to include a pot noodle.

Rev Gurr, an associate vicar at St Michael at the North Gate, one of the church’s taking part in the initiative, added: “The two churches offering beds on the first night - 10 each - will be St Alban’s in Charles Street and New Road Baptist Church.”

A city council survey in November gave the estimated number of rough sleepers in the city as 94 - up on last year’s total of 89.

Five extra churches joined the scheme this year, making 12 in total, with the shelters opening at 9.30pm each night.

The city council’s outreach service OxSPOT is facilitating the referral of clients to the church scheme. Last year a total of 33 people used the service, many of them returning night after night.

Rev Gurr added: “Pot noodles and cup-a-soups will be offered at some churches while others will provide sandwiches and homemade cakes.”

Up to 215 beds are available for Oxford rough sleepers this winter - with church beds adding to the total. The council activated SWEP last night.

A Christmas Match Fund, which supports nine homelessness agencies, is being overseen by Oxford Poverty Action Trust.

Oxfordshire Community Foundation is matching donations and the fund, backed by the Oxford Mail, is on track to reach £70,000 by Sunday when it closes. To make a donation visit