Life

How to help someone sleeping rough in the cold

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Megan Murray
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As temperatures drop to sub-zero levels, the UK’s homeless are struggling to survive. We’ve put together a guide on how to help.

Picture the scene: it’s your lunch break, and you’ve popped out to grab a sandwich and a drink. Walking down the street, you’re lost in a flurry of thoughts about tonight’s plans with friends or an important meeting this afternoon, but feeling the bitter winter’s chill you pull your coat a bit closer and absentmindedly mutter to yourself, “it’s so cold”.

Suddenly your thoughts are broken by a sight just ahead of you. There is a homeless person crouched strategically on a flattened cardboard box, in an attempt to stop the freezing cold of the pavement from sinking into them. Their hands are red raw, exposed to the wind because of the sign they’re holding which reads: “Please help me, I’m really cold and homeless.”

It should be a scene reserved for dystopian horror films but, heartbreakingly, recent figures show an estimated 4,751 people are sleeping rough every night, with numbers increasing every year.

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.

Commenting on the rising stats, Crisis Chief Executive, Jon Sparkes, believes the reality is even worse. 

He says: “Rough sleeping at any time of year is incredibly dangerous, but when it’s this cold it can be deadly. We’re urging councils across the country to open their emergency winter night shelters and ensure no one is left alone and freezing on the streets.

“No one should ever have to sleep rough – yet thousands of people across the country have nowhere to turn. Official figures released last month showed that 4,700 people across the country are sleeping on the streets, and Crisis’s own research shows it’s more likely to be 9,000.”

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 late last year, 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.

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, streetlink.org.uk, 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.

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
  • Crisis has a summer raffle that you can buy a ticket for, or 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. Homeless.org 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. 

Homeless.org also has a list of all the Winter Shelters running from November 2017 to, in some cases, March 2018, which may provide some more options. 

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 digital journalist for stylist.co.uk, who enjoys writing about London happenings, beautiful places, delicious morsels and generally spreading sparkle wherever she can.

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