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How to help someone sleeping rough

Jul 12, 2022
4 min read
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The topic of how to support someone sleeping rough is a complicated one. Even within homelessness charities, there is no clear answer on some issues. At Greater Change, we've learned a lot about sleeping rough. 

We have supported over 500 people, with over 70% finding homes. We also partner with many of the biggest names in the homelessness charity space and the government. It's not our place to tell you what to think, but we offer a well-informed opinion.

We'll start with 3 key things that almost all professionals experienced with supporting homelessness agree are very helpful. We'll then move on to a couple of others that can be helpful. 

Firstly, look out for people in urgent need

Someone might be in immediate danger, have an urgent health issue or be a young homeless person. If you proactively look for signs that this is the case and then proactively make a call, you could save someone's life. 

It is important to note that if you think the person you see sleeping rough is under 18, you should call the police regardless of their situation. This is because it is hazardous for a young person sleeping rough, and the police will be able to rapidly link the person with appropriate support services or an outreach team.

Often it will be evident whether someone is in immediate danger or has an urgent health issue requiring medical attention. However, sometimes it is not so clear. Some signs to look out for are: If the person has been sick. If the person is lying in an unnatural position, it looks like they could have collapsed rather than gone to sleep. If the person is talking to themself.

These are the only signs, don't assume someone is okay just because other people are walking past. There have been multiple deaths on busy streets that could have been prevented if people passing took action.

Secondly, acknowledge someone sleeping rough

We have worked with many people who have told us that one of the most challenging things about rough sleeping is how dehumanising it is. If you can acknowledge someone by making eye contact, smiling or saying hello, this can be helpful.

Every situation and person is different, so use your common sense, but often a smile can go a long way in helping someone feel accepted and welcomed in the community. 

If the person seems to want to talk, try to initiate a conversation. Be respectful, polite, and friendly. You should respect the person's privacy, focus on what they want to talk about, and listen.

Don't judge the person or try to solve their problems. Just be there for them. It's important to be polite and respectful in all interactions with people  - being kind is the best way to ensure that someone will feel comfortable trusting you enough for an honest conversation about their situation.

Thirdly, donate money to charities helping rough sleepers 

Donating to a charity is an obvious step for those who can afford to. Money tends to be more beneficial than things; don't buy brand new stuff to give it to a charity. It would be a kind thing to do, but the money you spend is more useful to the charity. The charity is better placed to spend the money on what they need.

If you would like to donate, there are many excellent homelessness charities. At Greater Change, we focus on supporting individuals' financial needs, e.g. providing rent deposits, skills courses, identification documents etc. You can see some of the people we are supporting and what they are saving for here.

Some charities also use donations to lobby for better policies and research. Given we work with lots of partners, and they're all great, we don't want to recommend one over another!

However, you could Google 'homelessness charity' followed by what's important to you to find somewhere that suits your preferences. For example, 'homeless charity research' or 'homeless charity lobbying'.

Remember that with this method, you may miss smaller organisations. To find those, you will probably need to ask around your community. You could also use the charity commission, searching 'homeless charity and applying a location filter. 

Now on to some other areas of how you can help.

Donating items

Greater Change believes giving people living on the streets essentials is a good thing and can, in extreme circumstances, save the person's life.

If the person is sleeping rough and the temperature is forecast to drop below freezing, encourage them inside. Sleeping rough outside in these temperatures can be highly dangerous, even with blankets and warm clothes.

In the UK, severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP) must be provided when the weather is forecast to be sub-zero for 3 consecutive days. This means people sleeping rough can almost certainly access shelter, which is the best course of action.

Call your local council to find out where the person's local shelter is. They should have an emergency contact number you can use if you are with someone and are calling outside of working hours.

Clothing

a lot of people sleep rough in the same clothes for days on end. In winter, this means they are at risk of developing hypothermia. New socks and underwear can really help to keep them warm.

Blankets

Sleeping rough can be very cold at times, so blankets can be a good thing to give. If you have stuff like used clothing or blankets and want to donate them to a registered charity, call one of your local charities. They might want the items, and if they don't want them, they are likely to be able to advise whether other charities would want them. 

As mentioned previously in the article, we don't recommend you buy new things and then give those to a charity. Just give them the money you would have spent and let the charity decide what to do with it.

Volunteering

Volunteering can be a great way to support people who are homeless and organisations helping homeless people. We recommend calling some local charities and seeing if they need any volunteers. When thinking about whether volunteering is a good fit for you, consider the following 2 points:

  1. Decide whether you want to volunteer long term. Only offer to volunteer long term if you are sure you can follow through on that commitment. Often a charity has to spend a paid employee's time coordinating volunteer activities and providing basic training. If you then end up only volunteering once or twice, when the charity expects longer, this can hinder rather than help the charity. 
  2. Often, if you can afford to donate, this is a more efficient way of helping. Sometimes a volunteer is exactly what a charity needs. Other times they need people with experience working with homelessness. Often, supporting people effectively requires a great deal of knowledge and skill developed over time working in the sector. In addition, extra funding helps the charity take on new staff.

Volunteers help charities a great deal, and it's definitely something you could consider. It's important to consider the above 2 points before deciding if it's the right option for you.

Giving money to people rough sleeping

Greater Change believes this is a personal decision for you to make. Money may help. Do be aware though, that there are risks, such as:

  • Exploitation: Rough sleeping is a dangerous and vulnerable situation. Some people are forced to beg by gangs, and the gang takes the money from the person. The funds given can fuel and incentivise this exploitation. 
  • Professional begging: Many people who beg are not truly rough sleepers or homeless at all. Most people want money given to help someone homeless, not a professional beggar. 

If you want to support someone but without the risks, Greater Change enables this here. We've written in more detail about whether you should give cash here.

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