How to help a homeless person this winter

A homeless person sitting on the street next to passers-by in winter. (Getty Images)
Often just stopping to have a conversation with someone experiencing homelessness can make a difference. (Getty Images)

Homelessness is a growing problem in the UK, unfortunately being compounded by the energy and cost of living crisis, and the colder conditions of winter.

While it's not down to you to solve it, acts of kindness and lending a helping hand, if you feel you're able to, can go a long way.

So, if you want to offer support but aren't sure how to, Nadeem Khan, team leader at Shelter's telephone and online advice services, has thankfully suggested a few ways you can from his expertise. And some don't cost anything at all.

Why is it important to help if you can?

Homelessness can happen to anyone.

"This year, many families are facing their toughest festive season ever. Every four minutes a household in England becomes homeless," says Khan. "Now with energy bills rocketing and private rents reaching record highs, thousands could be at risk of losing their homes and facing Christmas homeless."

And while we might have a picture in our head of what homelessness looks like, the experience can vary.

"Most people who are homeless are hidden from sight. At the end of last year, 274,000 people were recorded as homeless in England, including 124,000 children," he explains.

"Most homeless people are families with children who are living in temporary accommodation, with rough sleepers accounting for 2,688 of those homeless last year. Record high rents and soaring living costs mean many more people are at risk of being tipped into homelessness this winter."

So, your support can help people in many different situations.

Read more: Financial control: 'My wealthy ex-husband left my two children and I homeless’

What can you do to help?

Volunteers from the Homeless Mobile Run distributing hot meals, drinks, treats, clothes and toiletries to people in need in Dublin. (Getty Images)
You can help out in a way that suits your situation. (Getty Images)

Donate if you can

It's understandable that this year more than ever, parting with spare cash might not be as feasible, but for those who can, it's fair to say it's even more important.

But wondering where your money might go?

"Shelter is doing all it can to help families weather this storm," says Khan, as are other charities. "But as more people turn to us, we need the public to help us be there. Give what you can and together we can provide free advice and support to thousands of families facing homelessness this winter."

You can donate to Shelter here. Or other charities to donate to include Crisis, St Mungo's, Centre Point, and more. Rather than donating money, you can also donate your time by volunteering, or even fundraising.

Ask if you can help

Ask first if someone you see would like help. It's also important to be weather-aware, as in winter people are likely to need different things to in summer.

"If you see someone sleeping on the street, you could offer them a hot drink or hot food," says Khan, as an example, but it could also be warm clothing, blankets or something else.

Check they're happy to receive items first, and sanitise them before handing over, where necessary.

Or, Khan adds, "If you feel comfortable you can stop to have a conversation with that person and check that they are ok." Sometimes just a friendly hello or chat can make the world of difference.

Read more: The simple gift you can give to help the homeless this year

Suggest using StreetLink

StreetLink exists to enable the public to do something to help those who are over 18 sleeping rough in England and Wales.

"You can ask if they’d like you to contact Street Link to connect them to local outreach services," says Khan. "And you can give them Shelter’s contact details to ring our emergency helpline. But do call 999 if you think someone is in urgent need of medical help."

You can also visit Homeless Link which has lots of practical support, like addresses of hostels and open nearby day centres that can provide food, drink and more.

Put pressure on the government

While helping individually this winter if you can is important, there's a way to try and make an even bigger impact.

"There’s a lot the government can do to prevent a surge in homelessness this winter – namely unfreezing housing benefit so struggling tenants can afford to pay their rents," explains Khan.

"But to protect people from future economic shocks and end homelessness for good, building decent social homes with rents pegged to local incomes is the only answer."

Shelter has recently launched its Winter Campaign, which asks people to send a letter to the prime minister, asking him to urgently do just this. You can use this email template to write to Rishi Sunak.

Read more: Talking mental health: What to say when someone's struggling, according to experts

You can also see Shelter's 5 Ways You Can Help Someone Sleeping Rough in Cold Weather guide on twitter.

Shelter's expert advisers are working with communities across the country, taking calls at its emergency helpline on 0808 800 4444, which is open 365 days a year including on Christmas Day, and are giving online advice through its webchat service and digital advice.

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