How to help the homeless in cold weather

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Megan Murray
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As temperatures become dangerously low, here’s how to help a homeless person in the cold weather.

Recent reports from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have shown that 2018 was a devastating year for the homeless community in the UK, with the highest numbers of deaths since records began. Statistics show that approximately 726 homeless people died in England and Wales in 2018, which is a 22% increase on 2017, and the biggest rise we’ve seen since records began in 2013. 

Currently it is thought that there are at least 320,000 people without secure housing in the UK, with homeless charity Shelter estimating that nationally one in 200 people are without a home.

Since 2010, the amount of people sleeping on the streets has increased by a shocking 169%. London is the worst affected city, but Brighton, Cornwall, Manchester and Luton aren’t far behind.

According to a report from Crisis, the perils of being homeless include verbal harassment, sexual assault, being urinated on and violence. But in the winter months even the elements are a threat, as numerous deaths, including a man who froze in Birmingham in 2017, have shown.

Seeing someone sleeping on the streets can be desperately worrying. While many of us want to help, we can sometimes be at a loss as to how.

With this in mind, we’ve answered some of the most common concerns attached to helping a homeless person, and consulted some of the UK’s homeless charities to get advice on how to help someone sleeping rough.

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Report their location to StreetLink

StreetLink is a website, mobile app and phone line that allows you to alert local authorities to the whereabouts of a rough sleeper, so they can deploy street outreach services to help. The service is available in England and Wales and requires you to give as much detail about the location and person you have seen as possible, so that the outreach team can find them.

Outreach teams go on patrol three times every seven to 10 days, on average. They visit rough sleeping spots in the early hours of the morning and follow StreetLink alerts to find people in need of help.

The team will undertake an assessment and work with the individual to look at solutions to try and end their rough sleeping; one of these options might be temporary accommodation. However, this work can sometimes take time, meaning that you might not see a change in the person’s situation straight away, although support is being offered.

Petra Salva, Director of Outreach Services at St Mungo’s, says: “We will be working day and night to help get as many people inside as possible. Rough sleeping is harmful and dangerous but when temperatures drop, lives are at risk.

“Health problems connected to continued exposure to the freezing cold, including hypothermia, exacerbate people’s already poor physical and mental health. It’s vital that we get help to people quickly so we can save lives but also in the longer term, find people permanent accommodation and the space to recover.

“If you are concerned about someone sleeping rough, I would urge you to get in touch via the StreetLink website,, to help connect someone with their local service as soon as possible.”

Download the app here or call 0300 500 0914 to easily alert the StreetLink team.

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Should I give money to a homeless person?

Although this decision is down to your personal discretion, the advice from most charities is to not give money to homeless people.

The Guardian reports that the Metropolitan police believe around 70-80% of people begging on the capital’s streets are taking class A drugs, such as crack cocaine and heroin, and it is generally thought that giving spare change could aid such behaviours.

A representative from homeless charity, St Mungo’s, explains that there’s a difference between begging and rough sleeping, and that “from listening to the people we work with, and our staff and sector partners, the feedback is that some people beg because they have no access to benefits or a wage and are destitute”.

The representative feels that for some cases, “it could be that [the person] has somewhere indoors to sleep, but needs money to pay for other things, including drugs or alcohol”.

One thing that is advised, though, is to acknowledge the person asking for assistance or money. Whether it’s a simple, “No, sorry” or a smile and a nod, treating them with dignity and registering their request gives them the respect that we all deserve.

Should I buy food for a homeless person?

St Mungo’s reports that most major cities have services that provide food to people who are hungry, like day centres or food banks, although they do not discourage buying food for someone if you want to. 

However, what the organisation sees as more important is speaking to the person, making a connection with them and listening to their story to see if there’s a greater way you can help. The charity advises that the best thing you can do is “talk to the person, listen to them, and ask if they’d like anything other than money, such as support away from the streets.”

How can I donate money to a homeless charity?

If you want to give money to a cause that’s helping to end homelessness, there are a few to choose from. And from monthly donations to a one off payment, there are many ways to go about it. 

Here are a couple of charities and donation schemes to get you started:

  •  St Mungo’s allows you to donate straight from your salary, before tax. You can also give one-off or regular donations, or donate by post or over the phone
  • You can invest in a Crisis investment unit. You can also donate from your salary or online, over the phone or in the post
  • Shelter allows you to do monthly or one-off donations from its website, as well as donate by post, phone, or through your payroll

Help a rough sleeper find the nearest hostel or emergency shelter

There are numerous accommodation options available to rough sleepers: some are free, and some may charge anywhere between £2-20 a night. These hostels tend to be oversubscribed but, when the colder weather hits, emergency centers also try and house as many vulnerable people as possible.

If you speak to a homeless person who is looking for somewhere to stay that evening, it can be helpful to know how to quickly access hostel information. has a search engine that brings up all the different types of accommodation open to homeless people, up and down the country, from short to long term facilities. 

The results also clearly explain which hostels need 24 hours notice or photographic ID as a prerequisite for those staying. also has a list of all the Winter Shelters running from November 2019 to, in some cases, March 2019, which may provide some more options. 

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Remember: however you feel comfortable helping a rough sleeper is up to you. You can see more ways of supporting the homeless, such as volunteering and campaigning, over on St Mungo’s website here.

Images: iStock


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Megan Murray

Megan Murray is a senior digital writer for, who enjoys writing about homeware (particularly candles), travel, food trends, restaurants and all the wonderful things London has to offer.

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