07 November 2016
Cold weather can be fatal for homeless people but there are practical steps you can take, such as volunteering or using an app to alert professionals
As the nights lengthen and temperatures nosedive, staying indoors becomes more tempting. But for homeless people there is no such luxury, and while sleeping rough is never an enjoyable prospect, it becomes even more dangerous – and often fatal – in the winter months.
Homelessness rates have risen dramatically, with rough sleeping doubling since 2010 and increasing by 30% in the last year, leaving huge numbers of people at risk. ,
Local councils have a duty to help rough sleepers during inclement weather and most have strict policies in place. The government encourages all authorities to have a severe weather emergency protocol, designed to offer guidance on the steps local authorities need to take, which could be a lifesaver for those with nowhere to turn, and is also supporting the private member’s bill going through parliament now, which would impose a statutory duty on councils to help people who are in danger of becoming homeless
But Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at homeless charity Crisis, says that cold weather conditions can still prove fatal for people sleeping on the streets: “Tragically, the average age of death for a homeless person is just 47.”
Call for help
If you feel immediately concerned for the safety of an individual, what are your options? If you’ve seen someone sleeping rough regularly and are concerned for their welfare, you can contact homeless outreach workers directly. “A first port of call is StreetLink, a safe and confidential way to alert specialist homelessness outreach teams if you see someone sleeping rough,” says Downie. “Of course, you can always stop for a chat and offer to buy someone a cup of tea – a bit of human contact could make a huge difference.”
If you’re in England or Wales, you can save the StreetLink number in your phone to save time looking it up in an emergency. Homeless Link has also developed an app for both iOS and Android. Dublin city has its own version with information on how the city council helps homeless people.
In Scotland, there is no centralised service such as StreetLink, so Scottish readers should check for local services that may be able to help. In Edinburgh, the housing charity Streetwork fields calls from the public to target help in addition to its outreach work. Head of services Jan Williamson says the charity has teams out on the streets of Edinburgh every day. “When we receive a call from the public, the team goes along to the area the person was last seen so that we can offer them our support, or help them to engage with the services they need.”
Graeme Brown, director of Shelter Scotland, says everyone has a right to access emergency temporary accommodation from their local council if they have nowhere else to stay. “If you are concerned about someone who is sleeping rough you can contact your local council who can offer help directly or through a local charity,” he says. Shelter Scotland also has a free helpline number: 0808 800 4444.
If you’re immediately concerned for someone’s life or believe they are very young, you should always call the emergency services. Whether contacting StreetLink or other outreach services, or the emergency services, try to give as much detail as possible. If you’ve seen the individual repeatedly, that will give an idea of how long they have been sleeping rough. Details about someone’s clothing and appearance can help identify them if they move elsewhere in the area while outreach workers or ambulance staff are attempting to locate them.
Volunteer or donate
Many homelessness charities regularly recruit volunteers to undertake longer term help – anything from befriending to advice, healthcare and helping out in charity shops. “Another way you can offer help is to volunteer for Crisis at Christmas,” says Downie. “Each year we recruit 10,000 volunteers to provide comfort, warmth and vital services for homeless people over the festive period.”
Many homeless shelters will offer help over Christmas, and while there are general roles, people with particular skills, from advocacy and advice professionals to dental nurses and occupational therapists, are particularly sought after to give targeted health and pastoral services to rough sleepers in shelters and day centres.
If you’re short on time, but want to help, regular or one-off donations are always welcomed by charities.And after the festive season, you can always donate unwanted socks and underwear, unopened toiletries, clothes and food. Many charities, such as St Mungo’s or Oxford Homelessness Pathways, accept these, providing they are new. Sites will give guidance on what gifts they can accept, but as a general rule, if you would be affronted to receive something yourself, your intended recipient might not be thrilled either.
Helping individuals in crisis is important, but the fact that homelessness has risen so sharply in the fifth richest economy in the world [pdf] is clearly unacceptable. Campaigning to end homelessness and stop people becoming homelessness in the first place is vital in the long term.
Writing to your MP and local councillors keeps the pressure up on politicians, and homelessness charities are always campaigning for changes in the law: for a bigger budget for preventative work, human rights for homeless people, and legal duties that force local authorities to provide help for everyone facing homelessness. You can get involved in Crisis and Homeless Link campaigns online, and research local groups campaigning for better provision for the homeless in your community.
There is also a campaign Homelessness: Far From Fixed on the Shelter Scotland website.