Activism

What should you do if you see a homeless person?

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

homeless person experiencing homelessness

Homelessness has become a clearly visible issue on Britain’s streets in recent years and it is a perilous place to be.

That is true whether the weather is hot or cold but extreme weather can make life on the streets even more dangerous. 

Often it is during heatwaves, during Christmas or the rest of winter when temperatures drop when you can make the most difference to people’s lives.

Change a Big Issue vendor’s life this Christmas by purchasing a Winter Support Kit. You’ll receive four copies of the magazine and create a brighter future for our vendors through Christmas and beyond.

Official figures showed 3,069 people estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in September 2022 in England – up 26% on 2021 and 74% higher than in 2010.

This figure is considered by experts to be a considerable underestimate and the Westminster government is currently not on course to reach its target of ending rough sleeping by 2024.

Devolved nations are also working to end rough sleeping.

But 2,438 households in Scotland reported rough sleeping in 2022-23 during the three months before they asked councils for help to avoid homelessness while 1,500 were homeless on the streets the night before.

There are an estimated 135 people sleeping rough as of September 2023.

With the cost of living crisis continuing to hit households, there are fears that more people will fall into homelessness in the months ahead.

The sight of someone living on the streets still 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.

What do you say to a homeless person?

The first way to help people experiencing homelessness 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.

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, 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 the day.

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 someone is doing, you could also see if they need any help with anything.

Homelessness can make 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.

If you are told about these problems and you are in England and Wales, send an alert to StreetLink – an organisation which connects people living on the streets with local authority and outreach teams to reach support.

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

The service relaunched earlier this year, meaning you can no longer send alerts via an app and instead must send them through the StreetLink website.

Ninesh Muthiah, chief executive of Home Connections, which operates the £2million StreetLink contract on behalf of the government, said: “It is vital that the public embrace this unique service. Help really is in the hands of anyone with access to a mobile phone or computer.

“The website is not only simple to use, but it also tracks the outcome of any alert raised, so we can measure the impact the public Is having on ending rough sleeping.”

You can also point people to your nearest warm bank, if there is one nearby – these are free spaces open to anyone who needs to come in from the cold for a bit. 

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.

More than 1,300 died while homeless in the UK in 2022, according to the Museum of Homelessness’ Dying Homeless project. 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. If temperatures are extremely hot or cold, you can see your local council is offering shelter through the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol, better known as Swep.

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.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

Support our vendors this winter and beyond

If you can't visit your local vendor on a regular basis, then the next best way to support them is with a subscription to the Big Issue. As a social enterprise, we invest every penny we make back into the organisation. That means that with every subscription, we are supporting people in poverty to get back on their own two feet.
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