As a former rough sleeper of five years, and chief executive of London homelessness charity, Rhythms of Life, for eight, the question I hear more than any others: What can I do to help rough sleepers?
So I’ve put together a list seven things you can do to help rough sleepers this winter:
Give warm clothes and sleeping bags
Make no mistake, cold weather can be life-threatening if you’re sleeping on the streets each night. So have a look through your wardrobes and lofts for any hats, gloves and coats that you can spare. But don’t just leave a boxful out on the street and assume rough sleepers will get to it donate to your nearest homelessness charity.
Give hot drinks and food
Every other day it seems I get asked: “Should I give rough sleepers money or not?”. The simple answer is there’s no way to know where the money will go after you’ve let it out your sight. But if you want that money to go towards food, then cut out the middle man and buy that person a bite to eat or a hot drink. Soup, tea and coffee are very popular on our food distributions runs at this time of year.
Most people offering front line services such as food and clothing distribution are volunteers. My charity is staffed entirely by volunteers, myself included. There are countless organizations recruiting helpers, so make some time and do your bit, if you can.
We may all be tightening our belts again, but any amount we can squeeze out of our weekly budgets and donate can make a real difference in the lives of rough sleepers. These days, most distributions are done by recycling surplus food so cash donations of £5, £10 or £20 can be used to keep small charities in business or support a rough sleeper to attend a GP visit or a job interview.
Over 60% of rough sleepers are new to the streets according to No Second Night Out. One of the best things anyone can do is refer a rough sleeper to an organization that can help. If you have any concerns about someone sleeping rough then you can contact StreetLink (or download the app!), in England or look up your local agency in other parts of the UK. We recommend that you talk to the person to get their consent, and see if they’re willing to provide their mobile phone number to help outreach coordinators contact them.
One of the toughest struggles as a rough sleeper is living with the sense of social isolation and loneliness. So respond to the person in front of you and have a quick chat. Ask them about their day, learn their name and just be prepared to listen and empathize. We especially recommend this if you pass the same rough sleeper during your daily routine. But don’t be too pushy, show the homeless the same respect you would show anyone else.
Make it regular
Whatever you do, don’t just do it once or once a year. Homeless people are sleeping rough every night and organisations such as mine providing help 365 days a year too. Whatever you do, do it again and make a habit out of it. There are no acts of kindness too small to make a difference.