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Activism

What should you do if you see a homeless person?

A warm greeting and a word or two can make all the difference this Christmas

Homelessness has become a clearly visible issue on Britain’s streets in recent years and as temperatures drop over Christmas it can be a perilous time to be on the street.

So that means it is also the time when you can make the most difference.

There may be less people on the street generally this Christmas due to the impact of Covid-19 but for many people experiencing homelessness who are not able to access support, the streets will still be a place to stay.

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Official figures showed 2,688 people were estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2020, according to England’s official count. 

And the figure is also 52 per cent higher than in 2010 when the current counting system began and the Conservatives came into power.

The stats put in perspective the challenge that the current Westminster government is facing to reach its target of ending rough sleeping by 2024.

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Devolved countries Scotland and Wales are also working to eradicate rough sleeping – the most visible form of homelessness. 

But the sight of someone living on the streets remains commonplace but there are a number of ways where you can have a big impact on someone’s life for a small investment in time, particularly during the festive season.

What do you say to a homeless person?

The first way to help homeless people is a simple one – speak up! A warm greeting, some simple small talk or even just asking a personal question can make all the difference.

Homelessness puts an enormous strain on mental health with long hours of loneliness, isolation and sleep deprivation.

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And while Christmas can be a joyous celebration for most people, for others it can be a difficult time, especially if, like many people experiencing homeless, they are excluded from festivities or spend the time alone.

Big Issue vendors can have this experience, too, even while out selling the magazine on a packed street.

That’s why speaking up is so important.

Just think that the person that you pass who is living on the streets might not have spoken to anyone that day – just a simple ‘hello, how are you?’ could make an enormous difference to someone’s day. 

And who knows? Maybe you will take away something that does the same for you.

So why not strike up a conversation? And if you get chatting to one of our Big Issue vendors working hard to earn a living on the streets this Christmas, why not buy a magazine too? You can find your nearest vendor here.

What would you ask a homeless person?

Striking up a conversation is no different than with anyone else. You can say hello, ask how someone is or what plans they have for Christmas.

The same rules apply to striking up a conversation with any stranger, just be friendly and respectful and be wary of overstepping any boundaries. Many people will strike up a conversation, others might not want to talk. That’s fine, too, it’s all about making sure the other person is comfortable. 

As well as asking how they are doing, you could also see if they need any help with anything.

Homelessness also makes it almost impossible for rough sleepers to access services that those with a secure home can often take for granted. Healthcare can be tricky to get while setting up essential facilities required for work or benefits, like a bank account, are also tough without an address.

StreetLink becomes increasingly crucial for finding people who are homeless but may be out of sight on the streets – when the temperatures drops accessing emergency support can quickly become life-saving.

As the weather turns colder this winter, living on the streets becomes ever more dangerous. Heatwaves can become just as deadly too while climate change means extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent.

Official statistics showed 688 people died in England without a secure home in 2020 while 216 people died in Scotland. While interventions you can make on the street may seem like a small thing, they can also potentially save someone’s life. 

If you have an immediate concern for someone who is unwell or in danger on the street, call the emergency services.

What is the best thing to give a homeless person?

Life on the streets is tough and some of the challenges change from season to season.

In the winter, give a warm drink, warm clothing and other things that insulate from the cold if you are unable to help get the person to shelter.

Summer can be just as difficult with no place to get out of the sun. So consider offering high-factor sunscreen – which can often be expensive – and water to rough sleepers to protect them from the heat.

And if you see any of our vendors out selling the magazine on a pitch near you, a warm word would not go amiss alongside supporting them by buying the magazine.

Of course, you could always put a homeless person in touch with one of our distribution offices all over the UK to give them the chance to get themselves a hand up, not a hand out too.

But it is important to have a compassionate and non-judgmental conversation with the person you are trying to help first. They can tell you what they want and what help they might need. They may not want anything at all, it is up to them.

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