Homelessness is a desperate situation, regardless of what time of year it is. But as we huddle against the cold in our scarves, jackets, woolly hats, woolly socks, woolly tights, our entire woolly wardrobe… it hits home that people are actually out sleeping on the streets in this weather.
More than 320,000 people in Britain are homeless, according to research released this week by the housing charity Shelter.
That figure amounts to a year-on-year increase of 13,000 — a 4% rise, despite efforts to tackle the issue. It’s a serious problem and lives are being lost.
Rough sleeping means people are more likely to die young — with an average age of death for men at 47, and for women at 43, compared to the average national age of 77. Between 16 and 24, homeless people are at least twice as likely to die as those living in houses; for 25-34, the ratio increases to four or five times; and at 35-44, to five to six times.
These are shocking statistics. And most of us want to help.
But there’s a lot of mixed messaging out there — “why you should always give money directly to individuals”; “why you should never give money directly to individuals” — and, regardless of how good your intentions are, you can end up being so confused that you give up trying to help.
So, this winter if you see someone sleeping rough, here are 6 ways you can support them.
1. Get Professional Help
If you’re in England or Wales, you can use the great StreetLink service, run by St Mungo’s and Homeless Link and funded by government grants, to alert the charities’ to people sleeping rough who might need help.
There are several ways you can get in touch — fill out an online form, download the app, or call the 24-hour hotline on 0300 500 0914.
The information you give includes where you saw the person, including a street name and the nearest door number, and the time of day you saw them. As much information as possible is useful, so things like a physical description, and any particular concerns you might have that workers should know about can go a long way.
And the information will be handed to the charities’ outreach teams, so they can go out and find the person and get them the support they need.
While Scotland and Northern Ireland don’t yet have a centralised service like StreetLink, you can reach out to the local council or local charities, like Shelter, to let them know. People in Northern Ireland are advised to refer people sleeping rough to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. You can also find out more information on support services in specific locations in Scotland on Shelter's website here.
2. Start a Conversation
If you’d like, you could start a conversation. If they want to talk, you could ask their name, their situation, if there’s anything they’d like you to do.
It’s the fastest way to find out what kind of support they might want, if any.
3. Find Them a Shelter
If they’d like, you could help them find a shelter nearby, or a place where they can have a hot meal.
You probably have better access to the internet than they do, and chances are you’ll be able to Google what services are available nearby more easily than they could.
If you’re in England, Homeless Link helps you find homeless services in your area of England — that includes a full list of winter shelters in London, which has one of the UK’s highest number of rough sleepers. All you do is put in the area or post code that you’re looking for, and the service that you’re after, and it will give you all the options.
You could also reserve a person a place at Crisis for Christmas. For £26.08, the service gets them a hot Christmas dinner, advice and support, healthcare, dental treatment and eye tests, hairdressing, a year’s worth of access to the charity’s training and support, and more.
In 2017, Crisis at Christmas was held in Birmingham, Coventry, Edinburgh, London, and Newcastle. And in 2018, South Wales will also be taking part. You can also register to volunteer at the 2018 events here.
4. Offer Warm Clothes or a Blanket
Maybe you’ve already got an extensive winter wardrobe, or blankets around the house that you don’t need.
You could round them up and either take them to a charity shop where proceeds go to help people sleeping rough; or you could take them round yourself if you’d rather, and see if anyone would like them. Homeless charity St Mungo's also collects donations of items, and you can find out more here.
Ellie Cliff, 20, from Bristol, has taken this idea one step further after she learned to knit. She now makes scarves, gloves, and hats, leaving them tied to lampposts and railings around the city for those sleeping on the streets.
She was inspired by a 2017 event — Keep Bristol Warm’s “I Am Not Lost” event — when volunteers tied scarves to the city’s lampposts.
5. Buy a Hot Drink or Food
Before you head into a supermarket or cafe to buy your lunch, you could ask a homeless person if they’d like you to get them something, and what they might like.
In terms of giving money directly, there’s very different advice about depending on which charity you ask.
Some might say giving money encourages drug use, for example, while others, including Crisis, say it’s a “personal choice.”
6. Pay it Forward
Scottish cafe-with-a-twist Social Bite operates a pay it forward scheme that helps customers buy food and hot drinks for the country’s homeless population.
The “Suspended Coffee” scheme means you can pay in advance for a coffee or anything from their menu, then a homeless person can go into their shops to claim it.
Although they only currently have branches in Scotland, you can join in the scheme if you’re elsewhere — either by texting BITE00 £5 to 70070, or by donating to their JustGiving page.
The organisation held a “Sleep in the Park” fundraising event last year in Edinburgh, and in just 10 hours of the fundraiser being launched, more than 20,000 vouchers had been donated to help the scheme feed rough sleepers in Scotland.
Meanwhile at the 2016 event, some 75,755 vouchers were donated in total during the fundraiser, which allowed Social Bite to provide hot meals for homeless people throughout the year.
What’s more, Social Bite’s cafes in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen will also open their doors to serve homeless people on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.