While sleeping rough is life-threatening at any time of year, sleeping in the cold winds and heavy rain of winter can make an already dangerous situation even more lethal. And according to homelessness charity Shelter, over 300,000 people in Britain are officially recorded as homeless – that's one in every 200 people, although the figure is most likely much higher as they did not include people trapped in 'hidden homelessness'. Dubbed by MPs as a “national crisis”, major regional cities across the UK have seen a substantial year-on-year increase in homelessness – and London has one of the largest rates, with one in 59 people having nowhere to live.
According to charity Streets of London, the majority of people who find themselves sleeping on the street are facing a major crisis that means they’ve ended up with nowhere else to stay. Relationship breakdown, redundancy, poor mental health, alcohol/substance addiction and domestic abuse are just some of the reasons why people end up homeless, however, the effects of benefit cuts, the housing crisis and increased migration, along with cuts in funding to services, mean the number of people sleeping rough has increased sharply in recent years.
So what can you do to help if you see someone sleeping on the streets? Your first port of call should be to see if they look ill or have an injury which requires urgent attention– if they do, don't hesitate to call 999. If you see someone who looks underage, or if they have a child in their care, you should contact the emergency services by calling 101. And if this isn’t the case, you can refer them to a homeless shelter.
The easiest way to refer someone to a shelter is by downloading the StreetLink app, or using their website. Once the alert is received, the charity will send someone out to provide some vital support. If you’re unable to report in-app or online, call their 24-hour hotline on 0300 500 0914. Your report will be forwarded to the local authority or outreach service and could lead to a homeless person getting a warm bed for the night, and long-term support to get back into accommodation and work. StreetLink operates across England and Wales, so you can get in touch with them about rough sleepers anywhere in either country
You'll need to give StreetLink the below information with your report:
Night-time sleep location: This is absolutely key in many cases, as this is when most outreach teams operate. If you have this information, be as precise as possible.
A physical description: For obvious reasons, this can go a long way to helping outreach workers find someone who is rough sleeping.
Any particular concerns: Health issues (whether the rough sleeper has medication that requires refrigeration, for example), or other concerns workers should be aware of if and when they meet the rough sleeper.
As for giving money to those sleeping rough, some UK homeless charities say it's better not to offer money because of the prevalence of drugs on the streets, while others, like Crisis, say it's a "personal choice". Giving food, clothing, and hot drinks is also a personal choice and an important act of kindness, but sadly does little to improve a homeless person’s situation for more than a couple of hours – so always contact StreetLink too when you can.