What to do if you see someone sleeping rough?

Jun 8, 2022
4 min read
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If you see someone sleeping rough, what you should do depends on the person's situation. This article will run through a few different situations and what to do in each. First, though, there are some things you can do that tend to be helpful irrespective of the case.

Making eye contact and acknowledging someone's presence is a positive thing to do. Look to see if there are any evident signs the person has a serious health issue or whether they are in a dangerous place.

What is rough sleeping?

The UK government defines rough sleeping in the following way.

People are sleeping, about to bed down (sitting on/in or standing next to their bedding) or actually bedded down in the open air (such as on the street, in tents, doorways, parks, bus shelters or encampments).

People in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations, or "bashes", which are makeshift shelters often comprised of cardboard boxes).

The definition does not include:

  • People in hostels or shelters
  • People in campsites or other sites used for recreational purposes or organised protest
  • Squatters
  • Travellers

Cambridge dictionary defines a rough sleeper simply as: someone who sleeps on the streets because they have no home.

Greater Change believes rough sleeping is broader than this. We've written more about this topic here.

What steps can you take to support rough sleepers?

  1. If the person is under 18, needs urgent medical attention, or someone is in immediate danger.

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 young people, and the police will be able to link the person with appropriate support rapidly.

Often it will be evident whether someone is in immediate danger or has an urgent health issue. 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 by no means the only signs, don't assume someone is okay just because other people are walking past. There have been multiple deaths on busy streets due to people's inaction.

  1. If the person needs urgent medical attention, call 999 and get them to a hospital as soon as possible.

If the person rough sleeping is in immediate danger, do not approach the person - but call 999. The phone operator will send the appropriate emergency services and give you instructions on what to do until they arrive.

  1. If you are worried about someone's situation or health but are confident, there is no immediate danger.

If you are concerned about someone's situation or health, consider whether you should approach them. It's essential to use your judgment and carefully assess the situation before deciding if it would be appropriate to approach someone sleeping rough.

As long as there is no immediate need, you can inform Streetlink of the homeless person sleeping rough. The details you provide are sent to the local council/authority or local homeless outreach service.

A trained professional with knowledge of support services will then try to find the individual and connect them to support. Streetlink will require:

  1. A specific location for where the person is rough sleeping. You can do this by using a map to pinpoint the exact location and then providing a written description of the area.
  2. Details of the time the rough sleeper has been seen at the location.
  3. Any information about the rough sleeper that will help find them (gender, approximate age, what the person looks like, what they are wearing).

You will receive details of the action the local services authority takes typically when they are told someone is sleeping rough in their area and an update on what has happened due to your alert within 10 working days if you have requested it.

  1. If the person seems like they want to talk, try to strike up a conversation.

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 essential to be polite and respectful in all interactions with people  - being kind will make all the difference in ensuring that someone will feel comfortable trusting you enough for an honest conversation about their situation.

If you end up talking about how you might be able to help the person, only offer things that you will follow through on. We've written here about what you might be able to provide the person. Don't give the person false hope.

  1. If the person doesn't want to talk

If the person doesn't want to speak with you, let them be—but still keep an eye open for signs of trouble (like being sick) so that you can provide emergency help.

Check out this handy map with all the locations of homeless shelters and services in the UK.

If you are based in London, you can find a map of almost all homeless services here. You can also filter these services by type, for example, finding a map of hostels or a map of health services. 

Street Support has a map of services for many other cities in the UK.

Unfortunately, we aren't aware of their being a full national map.

Should you give money to people sleeping rough?

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 money is taken from the person by the gang. The funds given can fuel and incentivise this exploitation. 
  • Professional begging: Many people who beg are not truly rough sleepers or homeless. 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 on whether you should give cash here.

What other forms of homelessness are there?

There are many different forms of homelessness. The most acute forms of homelessness are rough sleeping; sleeping in cars, tents, public transport, unlicensed squatting or occupation of non-residential buildings; staying in hostels, refuges and shelters; living in 'unsuitable' temporary accommodation (TA) (e.g., Bed and Breakfast (B&B)); sofa-surfing (i.e., staying with non-family, on a short-term basis, in overcrowded conditions). All forms of homelessness are severe; the average age of death is 47.

Read Next

What is sleeping rough?

How to help someone sleeping rough?